Broncos lose balance, then game to Chiefs

McFarland didn't like Denver's execution on final play (1:09)

Booger McFarland explains why Denver should of tried for another play instead trying to win it all using a lateral. (1:09)

DENVER -- The first time Broncos running back Royce Freeman touched the ball Monday night, he cruised for an 18-yard gain.

The fifth time he touched the ball, he evaded seven or so would-be tacklers, dragging the last one -- Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Anthony Hitchens -- into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown run.

Yet those long runs, in a 27-23 loss to the Chiefs, offered another glimpse at the Broncos' aggravating, maddening and now repetitive knack for not doing what they do best:

The Broncos ran the ball to keep the game close Monday, then they ran it to build a 10-point lead in the second half. But when they had a chance to put the game away, they elected to leave behind what had worked.

With a three-point lead and 6 minutes, 26 seconds left in the contest, the Broncos pitched aside the power formations. They lined up in a three-wide set with a failed run out of an open formation on first down, then had a pass for no gain and a sack on the next two plays. What followed was a balky punt from Marquette King, and just like that, all the good work was undone.

"They played good defense there, a three-and-out, we had an OK punt, it wasn't a great punt, we gave them the ball with half the field," said Broncos coach Vance Joseph. "They made some plays."

The Chiefs worked themselves out of a second-and-30 situation, looked to have run a play for a first down after the play clock had run out and capped an eight-play, 60-yard touchdown drive to take the lead.

The Broncos need only look in the mirror after this loss.

"There's a few, especially those type of plays [including a late overthrow of wide receiver Demaryius Thomas] that I'll lose sleep over," said quarterback Case Keenum. "Thinking about it, laying awake at night in bed. It's tough one. It stings."

The Chiefs have led the way in the season's early going, with quarterback Patrick Mahomes entering Monday night's game with 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Kansas City averaged a league-leading 39.3 points per game over the first three weeks.

And to run the ball is almost to resist the temptation of today's pass-happy NFL. Yet it was the best move for the Broncos.

First, they're good at it. The Broncos entered the evening averaging 144.7 yards rushing per game. Secondly, if the Broncos had the ball, the Chiefs didn't.

And there was no better reason to run the ball than that against the Chiefs. In the first three games, nobody had been able to try it against the Chiefs.

The validation that the Broncos had it right until it went wrong was that they finished with 159 yards rushing on their 22 attempts -- a robust 7.2 yards per carry average. But they ran the ball just three times on the two possessions in the fourth quarter that could have sealed the game.

"We ran the ball well," Keenum said. "It seemed like we started off so many series, you know, just pounding the rock, second-and-1, first-and-10, even with some loaded boxes; our offensive line played well

Kansas City scored 49 first-quarter points in its first three games combined. That is a number so freakishly outside the league's average that no other team has reached 40 first-quarter points through four games (Cincinnati and Baltimore each have 38 first-quarter points after Week 4).

Run the ball and play defense might not mesh with the league's current environment, but when the Broncos committed to it on Monday, they were mostly rewarded. Freeman right, Phillip Lindsay left, with an Emmanuel Sanders run here and Devontae Booker there.

When Lindsay plowed in from the 1-yard line with 2:05 to play in the third quarter, it gave the Broncos a 20-13 lead. The Broncos ran out of power formations with two backs and two tight ends.

And they ran out of their three-wide sets. Freeman consistently powered through arm tackles, and Lindsay found creases. The lead went to 23-13 with a 46-yard field goal from Brandon McManus with 12:47 to play.

The Broncos have preached the value of "balance," of doing the things necessary to win games against the league's power brokers, which the Broncos haven't done since Peyton Manning was at quarterback.

But they lost their balance in the fourth quarter and, then, the game along with it.

"I told the guys to keep fighting," Joseph said. "We came out with a great mindset, we had a great week of prep and the guys played good football ... we'll win games like this moving forward. But I love our team's grit ... we gave up some plays late and that hurt us."