For an immensely struggling offense, it was the moment of truth.
With a little over 3 minutes left in the fourth quarter of their Sunday night showdown against the archrival Broncos, the Chiefs suddenly found themselves trailing by eight points, thanks to a pair of deep-ball completions.
And if this Alex Smith-led offense, which had only racked up 123 yards by the start of the fourth quarter, was ever going to figure it out, this — on national television, against an elite defense, with the pressure on — was the moment.
And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what they did. They not only mounted a seemingly-improbable 75-yard scoring drive, they also converted the two-point conversion and eventually prevailed in overtime for a 30-27 victory at Mile High.
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The Chiefs got the ball back late in the fourth quarter, and thanks in part to several Denver defensive penalties — not to mention a switch to a more conservative style of defense, including more two-man coverages and less blitzing, multiple Chiefs said — marched to the Broncos’ 14-yard line. Yet, after three incompletions, the Chiefs still faced a do-or-die fourth and 10 at the Broncos’ 14-yard line.
But the much-maligned Smith — who had struggled all day to that point, while absorbing six sacks and eight quarterback pressures — rose to the challenge. First by completing an 11-yard out route to Tyreek Hill — who, in a star-turn, became the first player since Gale Sayers in 1965 to score a rushing, receiving and return touchdown in the same game — for a first down that put the Chiefs in scoring position with 15 seconds left, then by finding Hill on a 3-yard slant that was eventually reviewed and ruled a touchdown.
“I have respect for the guy,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Smith, who has struggled since his return from “head trauma” against Indianapolis. “So lucky to have him.”
The Chiefs still needed the two-point conversion to tie, however. And with the game on the line, Reid dialed up a play designed for tight end Demetrius Harris, who has struggled with the drops all year but rewarded his coach by making a contested catch for the ensuing two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime in front of a stunned crowd.
“Going down 24-16 in the fourth quarter … I mean, most teams would stop playing,” outside linebacker Tamba Hali said. “But the way our offense was able to take the ball down, score and then get the two-point with 12 seconds to go? I mean, all of those things show just how much character, how much grit, our team has.”
Denver, however, got the ball back and started throwing the ball around in overtime, eventually connecting on a 44-yard field goal to take a three-point lead.
Not to be outdone, the Chiefs responded with a scoring drive of their own, as kicker Cairo Santos came on for a 37-yard field goal to tie the game at 27-27 with 4:19 left.
And after a 62-yard field-goal attempt by Denver fell short, all the Chiefs — who got the ball at midfield — needed to do to win was kick a field goal.
Smith came up big once again. He completed first-down passes to Hill and Travis Kelce to get the Chiefs in field-goal range, and Santos took care of the rest, connecting on a 34-yard field goal that hit the left upright and bounced in to give the Chiefs their first prime-time win in Denver since 1994.
“People just started grabbing me and saying ‘You made it, you made it,’ ” a jubilant Santos said afterward.
It was, to be sure, a thrilling end to an epic game that lived up its hard-hitting, defense-first billing, early on, at least, as both teams seemed content to pound away at each other with the running game in hopes to seeing it pay off later.
The Chiefs, in particular, seemed to take a cautious approach, mixing in a ton of short passes so Smith could get the ball out quickly against one of the most dangerous defensive fronts in football, to middling results.
The Broncos’ offense, however, failed to get much going against the Chiefs’ defense, which harassed quarterback Trevor Siemian to the tune of four first-half sacks.
And the primary culprit was outside linebacker Justin Houston, who racked up three sacks in the first half, with the last resulting in a safety that gave the Chiefs a 2-0 lead with 6:16 left in the second quarter.
But the safety would soon be the least of the Broncos’ concerns. On the ensuing free kick, Hill found a seam and turned on the jets to sprint untouched into the end zone to give the Chiefs a 9-0 lead.
The Broncos, however, showed signs of life by mounting a scoring drive that resulted in a field goal that made the score 9-3 going into the break.
At that point, the game was living up to its billing as a low-scoring, defensive-minded affair. The Chiefs mustered a mere 49 yards of offense; Denver had 124, but trailed.
It would not stay that way, of course, as Siemian — who finished 20 of 34 for 368 yards and three touchdowns — soon caught fire. On the next drive, he made a gaggle of nice plays, including a third-and-goal pass in which he avoided some pressure by reversing his field and throwing a strike to Jordan Taylor for a touchdown that gave the Broncos a 10-9 lead midway through the third quarter.
At that point, the pressure was on Smith, the Chiefs’ $17 million man who had completed a mere 5 of 12 passes for 26 yards by halftime and was being outplayed by a seventh-round pick who was drafted a year ago.
But that’s when Smith — who finished 26 of 44 for 220 yards and a touchdown — turned to his two most reliable targets, Kelce and Spencer Ware. They each caught passes to set up a 35-yard field goal that was ultimately waved off due to an illegal-formation penalty on Denver.
That gave the Chiefs a first down at the Broncos’ 12, and facing a crucial third and 1 at the Broncos’ 3, the Chiefs — as has been their M.O. — got cute. But this time, it worked; Ware received a direct snap and handed off to Hill, who exploded toward the sideline on the jet sweep and sprinted into the end zone for a touchdown that gave the Chiefs a 16-10 lead with 30 seconds left in the quarter.
The Chiefs blew a chance to extend the lead when they recovered a muffed Denver punt near midfield, and the Broncos made them pay, courtesy of two deep-ball completions to Emmanuel Sanders over cornerback Phillip Gaines. The latter, a 35-yard gain, went for a touchdown as the Chiefs suddenly found themselves trailing 17-16 with 7:47 left.
And after the Broncos snuffed out another Chiefs drive, they promptly extended their lead on third-and-short, when Siemian uncorked a deep ball to receiver Bennie Fowler, who hauled in a pass several yards behind Gaines and sprinted to the end zone for a 76-yard touchdown that put the Broncos ahead 24-16.
The Chiefs got the ball back with around 3 minutes left, which was more than enough time to put together a game-tying drive, which they ultimately did.
And once overtime started, the Chiefs — who had seized the momentum — finally took control after some push and pull, as the offense came up big one last time, and Santos put the Broncos away for good to improve the Chiefs’ record to 8-3.
The victory helps the Chiefs’ chances of winning the division. Oakland currently leads the pack at 9-2 but the Chiefs, who already beat them once earlier this season, still have a home game remaining against the Raiders.
But really, no one was thinking about all that Sunday. The victory — an instant classic — was too fresh.
After the disappointing loss last week to Tampa Bay — which beat Seattle, 7-3, on Sunday, by the way — it was needed. The Chiefs have contended all year that they are a Super Bowl contender, and on Sunday, they added another win to their resume that proved that’s not just idle talk.
“We know we’re one of the best teams, if not the best team in the league, in our mind,” Kelce said. “Our confidence is going to stay like that.”
The postgame message — which was handled by safety Eric Berry, who Reid described of the heartbeat of the team — assured that much.
“I turned it over to Eric in the locker room after I said my words and the point is that we’re not satisfied,” Reid said. “We’re not satisfied with this.”