KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The day began with the Kansas City Chiefs entertaining visions of regaining a grasp on the AFC West race. It ended in frustration, with the Chiefs having been sent a message by the division's bully about just how far they really are from being a championship team.
The Chiefs played with great energy for the game’s first 19 minutes, building a two-touchdown lead in front of a raucous home crowd. The Denver Broncos then showed the Chiefs how a true Super Bowl contender gets things done by shifting their game into a higher gear, reeling off four unanswered touchdowns and taking control of what ended up a 35-28 victory.
In doing so, the Broncos realistically ended Kansas City’s hopes of a division title. At 10-2, Denver has a one-game lead over the Chiefs, a sweep of the season series between them and four regular-season games remaining, all against teams with sub-.500 records.
Two times in three weeks the Chiefs have tried and failed to keep up with the NFL’s highest-scoring team. Those failures, wrapped around last weekend’s defensive collapse against the San Diego Chargers, have left the Chiefs pondering what appears to be a certain fate: a berth in the playoffs as a wild card.
“Certainly we are in a position to go another direction, not to say we still can’t win the division," quarterback Alex Smith said. “There are still a lot of games left, but those things are out of our control at this point.
“There certainly are two other ways to get into the playoffs, with the two wild-card spots, and we’re sitting pretty good with that."
By early in the second quarter on Sunday, the Chiefs looked ready to take command of the division race again. They raced to a 21-7 lead by doing all the things they failed to do in their loss to the Broncos in Denver two weeks ago. They were getting pressure on Denver quarterback Peyton Manning. They intercepted a pair of Manning passes. Their offense scored a pair of touchdowns. They got a big special-teams play in a 108-yard kickoff return from Knile Davis.
At that point, the Broncos did what the league’s best teams do when faced with adversity on the road. They didn't just match Kansas City’s energy -- they topped it.
The Broncos scored four touchdowns in five drives to leave the Chiefs flailing in their wake. They weren't content to take only what the Chiefs were giving them, which at that point probably would have been enough to help them win the game.
Instead, the Broncos started protecting Manning and gouged the Chiefs for five plays of more than 30 yards. In what seemed like an instant, Denver moved from being in a precarious position with regard to the game and the division race to controlling things.
The Chiefs scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, and later, down by seven points, moved as far as the Denver 13-yard line. That’s where they relinquished the ball on downs with less than two minutes remaining.
“We weren't going to knock that team out with 10 minutes left in the second quarter," Smith said. “Yeah, we jumped on them 21-7, but we knew what they were capable of. You knew they were going to battle back and be able to put up some points. There was just so much game left at that point.
“I don’t think we were in a place to finish them off."
The trouble is that the Chiefs played for a long stretch as if their 21 points would hold up. From the time the Chiefs went ahead 21-7 to the point where Denver’s 28-point blitz was finished, the Broncos outgained Kansas City 356 yards to 97.
Where the Broncos put together one big play after another, the Chiefs bungled their chances at big plays. Donnie Avery (twice) and A.J. Jenkins (once) dropped deep passes from Smith that could have halted Kansas City’s slide.
“Those things are going to happen," Smith said. “It’s my job just to keep throwing them. That’s the nature of the passing game. You’re striving for perfection. You’d love to hit every single one, but it’s not going to happen."
That’s one of the things that separates the Chiefs from the Broncos. Denver expects to make those plays and then, more often than not, the Broncos go out and do it.
Now, there’s something else separating these teams. It’s just one game in the standings, but it might as well be a mile.