It had been 44 years since the NFL enjoyed this momentous a matchup this late in a season, and that’s partly why Sports Authority Stadium literally was quaking in anticipation at kickoff Sunday night as the 9-0 Chiefs took on the 8-1 Broncos.
Irresistible force (the Broncos’ NFL-best offense) was clashing with immovable object (the Chiefs’ NFL-best defense). A Denver team everyone considered a Super Bowl contender was taking on a Kansas City team no one could anticipate would already have won seven more games than it did a year ago.
And all of that as much as anything accounts for another subplot that hovered over the game: Spectacular Denver must be the real deal, and the grinding, out-of-nowhere Chiefs would be forced to swig truth serum and be exposed as an imposter.
Only it didn’t quite play out like that in Round One of Chiefs-Broncos 2013.
Yes, the Broncos won 27-17, and that final score in a sense was deceptively close considering Denver had created a 27-10 cushion in a game that didn’t live up to the hype.
And, yes, Denver’s offensive strengths trumped the Chiefs’ defensive assets. For that matter, a Denver defense that entered the game 25th in the NFL in scoring defense further illuminated deficiencies in the Chiefs’ offense.
But despite all that, this was no romp for the Broncos, who actually were matched in first downs (24) by the Chiefs.
The Chiefs might be flawed, but they’re not a fraud.
And the result does nothing to change the fact that they are still well-perched and well-girded for a playoff berth and even home-field advantage, which is considerable when it comes to Arrowhead Stadium.
More immediately, little that happened on Sunday suggests Round Two between the teams in two weeks can’t go differently. The better team won on Sunday, to be sure, but will it be the better team on Dec. 1 in roaring Arrowhead?
After all, without so much as generating a sack on Peyton Manning, the Chiefs held Denver to a season-low 27 points. No wonder Manning threw for 323 yards despite a gimpy ankle.
And the Chiefs, who have created much of this resurgence by playing opportunistic football and simply making plays when they had to, didn’t do much of that against the Broncos.
In fact, the Chiefs uncharacteristically spent most of the first half creating predicaments for themselves by doing exactly the things they haven’t done all season and couldn’t afford to do with scant margin for error against the best team they’ve played.
They won the coin toss and took the ball, for instance, then held it for exactly 45 seconds and gave Manning a short field to work with. But they minimized the damage by holding the Broncos to a field goal.
The Chiefs, who lead the NFL in turnover ratio, later in the quarter took over at the Denver 18-yard line when Derrick Johnson scooped up a botched Manning handoff but the Chiefs handed it right back a play later when Anthony Sherman fumbled a pass from Alex Smith.
“You’ve got to take full advantage of that,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said.
This proved to be a double-whammy on the Chiefs, who have feasted on such moments all season.
They not only failed to capitalize but also were victimized three plays later by a 70-yard pass from Manning to Demaryius Thomas that set up Manning’s 9-yard TD toss to Julius Thomas.
That made it 10-0, the biggest deficit to that point that the Chiefs had faced all season.
And it changed the entire dynamic of the game.
Denver’s knockout punch loomed from that moment on against the Chiefs and their conservative offense.
Sure, the Chiefs immediately uncorked an 80-yard TD drive but allowed Denver to surge right back for a touchdown.
They whittled the lead back down to 17-10 on a Ryan Succop field goal late in the half but that meant they settled for just three after first and goal at the 2.
Then Denver ended the third quarter punt-fest between KC’s Dustin Colquitt and brother Britton of Denver with an 8-yard Montee Ball TD run that made it 24-10.
That proved absolutely insurmountable for a Chiefs team averaging 23.9 points a game, meaning that they can no longer rationalize that the offense might be low-scoring but that it all works just fine in the broader scheme of things.
So, in turn, they’ll have to take some serious inventory now and at least tweak some more things. Otherwise, it’s a definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Just as vitally if not more, the Chiefs also have to revive their suddenly silent pass rush, which has produced the most sacks in the NFL this season but been neutralized in their last three games.
Jump-start that element of the defense, which seems more feasible than an offensive makeover, and they’ll have ample means to play with and maybe beat Denver next time around as they try to gain traction toward the playoffs.