The red zone was a dead zone for the Chiefs. And two drives to nowhere cost them dearly in a 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
In the third quarter, the Chiefs kept the ball away from Peyton Manning for 10 minutes and reached the Denver 4. And got no points.
In the fourth quarter, trailing by those seven points, they reached the Denver 2. And got no points.
The Chiefs were handicapped in the red zone by the absence of Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles, who led the NFL with 19 touchdowns last season and left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury (as did safety Eric Berry).
So despite holding the Broncos to 14 points below their NFL-record setting 37.9 points per game of a year ago, the Chiefs fell to 0-2 and the defending AFC Champions improved to 2-0.
“That ended up being the difference,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of the two empty trips. “It’s tough when you’re playing a team like that. They were getting sevens and were playing at home …
“You put those drives together and you would love to come away with a touchdown. It had an effect on them at the end of the game, too. Those guys were out there for a lot of plays, especially their defensive front. I think it showed down the stretch.”
Indeed, the Chiefs showed the best defense against Manning was keeping the ball from him with a yard-chewing, minute-eating offense.
Trailing 21-10 at halftime, the Chiefs mounted a 20-play drive from their 20 to the Denver 4.
But a holding penalty on rookie guard Zach Fulton, a sack of Smith for five yards and an incomplete pass backed them up to the 19.
And rookie kicker Cairo Santos, who had a case of the yips last week against Tennessee when he made one-of-two attempts; shanked a 37-yarder wide right.
“When given an opportunity to make a field goal, you’ve got to make the field goal,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
However, Reid said he has no regrets about keeping Santos — who did make a 45-yarder in the first half — and cutting veteran Ryan Succop, now with Tennessee.
“No I don’t,” Reid said. “He’s got to kick better. But I don’t ever look back on those things. When he settles down he’ll be … he kicks it fine. … We have trust in him.”
Coming away without any points in the third-quarter drive changed the math of the game. Instead of getting within four points with a touchdown or within eight with a field goal — where a touchdown and two-point conversion later could tie it — the Chiefs were down two scores.
So when they opened the fourth quarter with another impressive drive and Knile Davis, who replaced Charles, scored his second touchdown of the game on a four-yard run midway through the period, the Chiefs still trailed 21-17.
The Broncos, aided by a back-breaking 54-yard kickoff return by Andre Caldwell, answered the Chiefs’ second touchdown when their rookie kicker, Brandon McManus, made a 20-yard field goal with 3:30 to play.
That seemingly was enough time for the Chiefs to mount a game-tying — and possibly game-winning drive, if Reid would be bold enough to go for two.
Smith, aided by three Denver offsides penalties, moved the ball to the 2 with 55 seconds to play. But without Charles, the goal line looked farther than 2 yards away.
On third down, Davis was stopped up the middle for no gain. And on fourth down, Smith’s pass intended for Dwayne Bowe was tipped by defensive lineman Terrance Knighton and linebacker Nate Irving kept Bowe from grabbing the deflection.
Add it up, and the Chiefs traveled 13 minutes, 22 seconds and covered 125 yards without scoring on two of their four trips in the red zone.
“Everything gets magnified down there,” Smith, his forehead and nose decorated by purple bruises, said of the red zone. “The matchups are that much more important. It definitely hurts to have (Charles) out. Knile had limited reps all week. So you are practicing certain things that are in, with Jamaal getting the reps, and then he is out.
“It’s tough when those young bucks have to step in, but I thought they did a great job. Knile and Cyrus Gray don’t get as many reps, so it’s hard to throw the game plan out and have those guys step up ... (Charles) is such a unique guy. There are certain things he does that a lot of guys can’t do.”
Smith turned to Bowe on the final offensive play, though Bowe missed the last few weeks of preseason with quadriceps and finger injuries, and returned to practice last week after he was suspended for the season opener for violating the NFL substance abuse policy.
Bowe grabbed a pass for 21 yards to the Denver 9 that put the Chiefs in position to send the game in to overtime or win it. But he couldn’t shake the Broncos coverage in the end zone.
“They doubled me on the inside,” Bowe said. “That was the perfect defense for that play. I was trying to go inside and they had everybody boxed up.
“I’m big and physical, it’s my job and the offense’s job to make those plays, and that’s what we have to do.”