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Third-down dilemma nearly dooms Denver

DENVER -- On fourth down, the Denver Broncos are game-savers; they suit up, slap on a cape and do some super-hero stuff.

In both games this season, the Broncos’ defense has made a play on fourth down as the clock wound down to stop a rally and preserve a seven-point win. As they did in the season-opener against the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos did it again Sunday to hold off the Kansas City Chiefs, 24-17, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.

But it wasn’t without plenty of worry lines all around. Because on third down? It was third-and-brutal.

"Converting on third down, getting off [the field] on third down is something the defense is always about," Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware said. "If you can get off [the field] on third down, then it’s a great defense. [Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith] strings some of the plays out, they were able to make some big plays on us in key situations."

"We all get paid to come in here and do our job," Broncos linebacker Nate Irving said. "We don’t have any excuses, we know we can’t do that and be the kind of defense we want to be. We’ll look at it all. Like I say, we’ll look at it and see where we messed up."

Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has consistently started most any conversation about what needs to be done each week with two items. He will say the defense needs to "leverage and tackle," and he will routinely add the importance of getting off the field on third down "to give the ball back to our offense as many times as possible."

If you take away quarterback Peyton Manning taking a knee to end the game, the Broncos' high-powered offense had just two possessions in the second half Sunday. Two.

In all, the Chiefs converted 11-of-16 third downs and converted all types along the way. Some short, some intermediate, some long and some in the no-offense-should-ever-convert-those range.

During the Chiefs’ marathon 19-play (23 plays when penalties are included), 10-minute drive to open the second half, Kansas City converted five third-down situations. The Broncos escaped without surrendering any points -- Kansas City kicker Cairo Santos missed a 37-yard field goal attempt -- but those five were an alarming third-and-18, a third-and-11, a third-and-13, a third-and-3 and a third-and-8.

The Chiefs made three of those on completions from Smith for 20, 14 and 5 yards. But the Broncos put a little more self-inflicted woe on the pile with flags for roughing the passer on Malik Jackson to go with an illegal contact penalty on Chris Harris Jr.

The Broncos also, on a third-and-9 situation in the game’s closing minutes, had an Aqib Talib interception return for a touchdown that would have closed things out negated by an offside penalty on defensive end Quanterus Smith.

"We know," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We know, every guy in here knows we have to do a better job of getting off the field. We’re 2-0, we made some plays to get the W's, but we know what we’re going to look on film."

They better. Because while 2-0 always feels pretty good, the Broncos know the Seattle Seahawks await them next Sunday.

Or as Harris put it before he strolled out of the Broncos' locker room: "If guys go out and celebrate and act extra hyped off winning this game … then their mindset is not in the right place."