There’s little doubt who’s in control of the AFC West now.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning threw five touchdown passes, including four to Eric Decker, as the Broncos riddled the Chiefs 35-28 on Sunday in front of an emotionally spent sellout crowd of 77,065 at Arrowhead Stadium.
The victory gave Denver, 10-2, a one-game lead in the AFC West, and because the Broncos swept the season series from the Chiefs, they own the head-to-head tiebreaker, giving them in effect a two-game lead over the Chiefs, 9-3, with four to play.
“Certainly, that’s what we were shooting for, to win the division,” said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. “That’s the first way to punch your ticket to the playoffs. Not to say we still can’t win the division; there are a lot of games left.
“We have to focus in on what we have to do, and that is to win ballgames. There certainly are two other ways to get into the playoffs with the wild-card spots. We’re sitting pretty good with that.”
By winning Sunday, the Broncos also own a one-game lead over New England for the No. 1 seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
As for the Chiefs, who have lost three in a row, they appear locked in the No. 5 seed, or even the No. 6 seed. Either way, it means a first-round playoff game at one of the other two division champions — AFC South leader Indianapolis, 8-4, or AFC North leader Cincinnati, 8-4.
And if they were to win that one, the Chiefs would play a second-round game at either New England or Denver.
“We’re disappointed we lost; it’s definitely tougher to win the division now,” said Chiefs guard Geoff Schwartz. “We have to win next week. We have to get back in the win column. Losing is not fun. We still have nine victories. You can’t take that from us.”
The immediate challenge for the Chiefs is to snap their three-game losing streak. No team in NFL history that started a season 9-0 ever lost its next two, much less its next three.
The Chiefs finish the season with three of their four games on the road, starting next Sunday at Washington, 3-9, where Andy Reid went 10-4 as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. The Chiefs are 3-0 against the NFC East this season, and Reid’s familiarity with the division has played no small part in that.
Only one of the last four opponents, Indianapolis — which visits Kansas City on Dec. 22 in what could be a playoff preview — has a winning record. The Chiefs also visit Oakland, 4-8, on Dec. 15 and wrap up the season at San Diego, 5-7, on Dec. 28.
Denver finishes with games against Tennessee, 5-7 and San Diego before concluding with road games at Houston, 2-10, and Oakland. So barring a total Broncos collapse, the Chiefs will have to be content with a wild card.
And for a team coming off a 2-14 season, that wouldn’t be half bad.
“It’s not about re-setting (expectations),” safety Kendrick Lewis said. “It’s about playing the cards you’re dealt. They’re up two games in the division, we win out, we take care of business, maybe we see them later on down the road.”
A third meeting with the Broncos, however, would be in Denver, and that’s what was at stake Sunday at Arrowhead.
“We knew coming in, this game was for control of our division,” said Decker, who set a Broncos franchise record with his four touchdown catches, “and when you get to the end of your season, winning your division is huge
“We’ve got four weeks left, and a lot can happen. We’ve got to focus on one week at a time.
“For us, this was a fun victory because Kansas City is a tough home team.”
As important as home-field advantage may be, it’s still no guarantee of reaching the Super Bowl. Just ask the Chiefs of 1995, 1997 and 2003. All three went 13-3, had a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout only to lose at home in the second round.
Chiefs defensive back Dunta Robinson was with Atlanta last season, and the Falcons, despite the No. 1 seed, lost the NFC championship game at home to San Francisco.
“This is the position we put ourselves in,” Robinson said. “But the beautiful thing about it is we still have a shot at it. We still have a chance. This is a great football team, and it’s been two slugfests, and (Denver) has come out on top both times.
“But we’ll keep battling. There is no doubt in my mind this team will bounce back. We just have to get a win. Andy won’t let us waver. We’ll be fine. This team is mentally tough. And if we see them again, we’ll be ready.”