As Cairo Santos’ potential game-winning field goal ascended toward the left upright on Sunday at Sports Authority Field, holder Dustin Colquitt slumped and put his hand to his helmet in woeful anticipation that Santos had missed.
Before exulting and pointing skyward in celebration, an uncertain Santos fixed a laser-gaze on the ball as it smacked off the upright an inch or so favorably enough to then go through and give the Chiefs a remarkable 30-27 victory in overtime.
“Called the bank shot … just forgot to tell Colquitt,” Santos tweeted later.
His words were punctuated by a photo taken by The Star’s David Eulitt in a scene that might be seen not just as a captivating contrast in itself but as a testament to just how intensely, insanely close this game was.
The victory was as thrilling as it was improbable, particularly considering the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos had a bye week to prepare for a Chiefs team that had lost at home to Tampa Bay the week before and has had no offensive juice for weeks.
It was easy for anyone following the Chiefs to have about the same shaken faith in their ability to win this game that Colquitt seemed to display right after the kick.
But suddenly the phenomenon of the charmed Chiefs apparently is back, leaving to wonder anew what it says that they keep winning games by paper-thin margins through confounding escape hatches.
Any one of the preposterous comebacks they managed against San Diego, Carolina and now Denver could be considered games for the ages.
To have three in one year seems like a trend and a trait that makes up for the sorts of doubts aroused by last week’s loss to Tampa Bay.
It seldom looks smooth or easy, and the offense has to be much better if the Chiefs are going to take this anywhere meaningful: You can’t score fewer than two offensive touchdowns a game (21 in 11 games) and expect to win championships.
Just the same, as of the latest episode of “As The Season Turns,” the “find a way” persona is defining the Chiefs far more than their liabilities or penchant for getting themselves into predicaments in the first place.
And that’s a combination of creating their breaks and some sheer fortune, the line between which is a blur.
Just look at the forensics at play in their victory over the Broncos, which required infinite developments to fall right … that did.
For starters, of course, the Chiefs simply don’t win this game without linebacker Justin Houston’s ferocious return to full health after more or less using the Tampa Bay game as a rehearsal for his comeback from knee surgery.
They also don’t win without rookie Tyreek Hill’s dazzling outburst, first for an 86-yard return on a free kick after Houston stormed through the Denver line to rack up a safety and then on a short run and reception for touchdowns.
The last came with 12 seconds left — on a play in which he was initially ruled short of the goal line — and enabled the Chiefs to tie the game with a subsequent two-point conversion.
Then there was the late play of quarterback Alex Smith, who has been fizzling since his return from getting his head crunched twice at Indianapolis.
Those smackdowns against the Colts were harsh enough for him to twice undergo the NFL concussion protocol, such as it is, yet somehow have it determined that there was, you know, nothing to it.
Smith has denied any lingering effects of his non-concussion, too, but coach Andy Reid acknowledged the struggles late Sunday as he praised Smith for the mental toughness that gave him a surge when he was needed most.
On the last drive of regulation, with the Chiefs down 24-16, that included completing a fourth-and-10 pass to Hill for 11 yards. Then Smith was himself at his best in guiding the Chiefs to field goals on both overtime possessions.
But none of that stuff from Houston, Ford or Smith necessarily would have mattered if not for their convergence with other crucial variables that the Chiefs crafted to their advantage — including 15 Broncos penalties (the Chiefs had nine).
Perhaps the least glamorous but most pivotal element of all was in the tone-setting foundation of the game: The first eight possessions ended with four punts apiece in a tedious battle for field position.
Midway through the second quarter, though, Colquitt’s 53-yard punt was muffed by Jordan Norwood and the Broncos were in a fix at their own 5-yard line.
On third and 7 at the 8, Houston bashed through Denver’s left guard and tackle to swamp quarterback Trevor Siemian, and it was 2-0 Chiefs on the safety.
That set the stage for Hill’s return, a dash from left to right up the field thanks to the handful of blocks he needed to find a crease.
The Broncos, though, took a 10-9 lead early in the third quarter after a late first-half field goal and Siemian’s 6-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Taylor.
Then the Chiefs were stuck settling for a field goal and appeared to take a 12-10 lead on a 35-yarder by Santos … only to see Denver flagged for an illegal defensive formation and get a first down at the Broncos’ 12.
Three plays later, with Spencer Ware at the helm in a Wildcat formation, Hill ran around right end and it was 16-10 Kansas City after Santos’ point after.
The difference between three points and seven there, of course, proved monumental.
But only because James Winchester recovered another muffed punt to keep Denver from taking over in Chiefs territory.
And then because the Chiefs oddly prospered by Denver scoring too fast after the Broncos held a 17-16 lead going into the final 4 minutes.
On third and 2 at their own 24, instead of simply trying to move the chains to burn clock, Siemian found Bennie Fowler for a 76-yard touchdown. Had Fowler caught the ball and gone out of bounds, the Broncos could well have run out the clock. The Chiefs were out of timeouts.
Certainly, they could have had them pinned deep in Chiefs territory with minimal time left.
While the advantage of taking a 24-16 lead instead of nursing a 17-16 lead is compelling, particularly since it keeps a field goal from beating you, it also has its drawbacks. The Chiefs demonstrated as much when they got the ball back with the eternity of 3 minutes left at their own 25.
Despite an inauspicious start to the drive when Smith was promptly sacked, he methodically moved them downfield — albeit with the help of three Denver penalties and a compliant strategy shift by the Broncos to more conservative coverages.
Even after Hill’s catch was ruled a touchdown, evidently because of the quirky luck of still bobbling the ball when he seemed down just shy of the end zone, the Chiefs needed a two-point conversion to make it relevant.
So, naturally, Reid called a dubious play on which the first option is tight end Demetrius Harris — who hadn’t had a catch since Oct. 30 at Indianapolis and seems to have dropped about as many as he’s caught (10) this season.
Naturally, it worked like … a charm.
But the Chiefs needed even more to fall their way to make this a victory instead of a piercing loss.
That serendipity took its most tangible form when Denver coach Gary Kubiak faced a dilemma: What to do on fourth and 10 at the Chiefs’ 44 with 1:08 left in overtime and the score tied 27-27?
A punt would have made for a likely tie, and a 62-yard field goal by a kicker (Brandon McManus) with range would win it.
But a miss would leave the Broncos vulnerable to a Chiefs field goal with a nice head start at the 44, so maybe going for it would have been a better prospect on a windy night.
Kubiak, whose team would have done well to be working for field position on third and 10 rather than throwing deep, went for the win.
And McManus wasn’t close after his kicking foot “kind of hit the ground” into the swing, as he put it afterward.
That pried open the way for Smith to hit Hill and Travis Kelce to set up Santos, whose kick took a wayward course toward the perfect ending to an instant classic.
And it spoke volumes about the Chiefs as agents of that adage of luck being preparation meeting opportunity — a fine X-factor to have in their favor, especially the more they continue to see themselves as such.