Here was the ideal script, served up on a gold-plated platter with a glowing bow wrapped around it.
This was the moment for the Chiefs to seize, the time to flip everything, the game that makes you say, “If not now … when?” against a vulnerable Denver team.
Instead, the ripest of opportunities dissolved into a soul-crushing, stomach-turning, eye-gouging fiasco on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
After botching a 14-0 lead, then leading 24-17 with 2 minutes, 27 seconds left, the Chiefs lost to the Broncos 31-24 on a freak 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Bradley Roby with 27 seconds left.
All with the specter of Peyton Manning once again lurking over them.
The decisive touchdown, delivered as the Chiefs were trying to run out the clock with star running back Jamaal Charles to send the game to overtime, came nine seconds after the Broncos had tied the score.
“I just don’t feel good right now,” said Charles, who rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown but also fumbled inside the Denver 10-yard line earlier in the game. “This is one of the hardest feelings I’ve felt in a long time.”
That play will be the focal point of the loss, the glaring last gaffe, but the truth is it really was more a symptom and a symbol of a night of blundering by the Chiefs.
They lost because of five turnovers, nine penalties and an utterly mismanaged first and goal at the 2, among other things.
They lost because they don’t know how to beat Denver.
Charles, without whom the Chiefs might not even have been in this game, punctuated that frustration on the sideline by slamming his helmet to the ground.
He was lucky it didn’t hit him in the head on the rebound.
But that bounce of the helmet wasn’t the only way the play reverberated.
It will take its own special place in tortured Chiefs lore, as much for the circumstances it came under as for its sheer unfathomability.
“Obviously, you can’t believe it …” quarterback Alex Smith said. “You don’t know what to feel.”
The reversal of fortune was all the more piercing because of the local anticipation of the game and the crackling atmosphere as it began before a crowd of more than 76,000 fans and members of the Chiefs’ two Super Bowl teams.
From an elegant rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by the Kansas City Symphony to the thunderous greeting of safety Eric Berry in his first regular-season home game since returning from cancer, the scene was set for a momentous night at Arrowhead — proud home of the world-record outdoor loudest crowd roar of 142.2 decibels.
From a Chiefs offense that seemingly found its crucial missing piece in the offseason in the form of Jeremy Maclin to a defense revitalized by the return of Berry, Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito, the pieces were in place for a night to remember.
In fact, it’s hard to conjure a scenario in which everything could have seemed more aligned for the Chiefs to finally purge themselves of their reigning nemeses, Denver and Manning.
Only … they didn’t.
The Broncos came to Arrowhead having won their last six against the Chiefs, each engineered by Manning — whose 14 wins in 15 career starts against them now reflect some combination of physical and psychological mastery over them.
But Manning is 39 now, and by all indications something between a shell and a shadow of himself in the twilight of his career.
That was part of why this night seemed like it would be the end of that era of futility — and, with that, maybe it would be a portal to the start of a new reality for the Chiefs:
To shrug off their recent past and, ultimately, become the sort of team that can win a playoff game for the first time in 22 seasons, defying Denver’s dominance of them may not be a prerequisite .
But it sure would help redefine the narrative, wouldn’t it?
That was where this seemed headed from the get-go on a promising opening series that instead fizzled.
The Chiefs opening drive ultimately synthesized this whole buildup/letdown scenario and, in fact, determined the outcome.
The Chiefs snuffed out the Broncos first drive and bolted from their own 21 to the Denver 2 on six plays — albeit with a boost from two of Denver’s four first-half unnecessary roughness penalties.
Three of those six plays, incidentally, were Charles runs of 6, 7 and 13 yards.
Three points virtually was assured, and seven seemed inevitable after the breezy way they’d gotten there.
Then, as if he just couldn’t bear the prosperity, coach Andy Reid outsmarted himself. Or something like that.
On first and goal at the 2, Reid dialed up a play that had Smith throwing to Charles squatting in the right flat for a three-yard loss.
Maybe a block was missed, but the play had zero chance from the start.
On second down, Reid had Smith throw almost laterally to Maclin as he ran directly toward the left sideline.
It fell incomplete, but, like the play before to Charles, there was scant chance of Maclin getting to turn upfield if he had caught it.
On the next play, Smith lobbed to Charles looping out of the backfield, a play reminiscent of one that had been a big gainer in the middle of the field last week at Houston.
In this spot on the field, though, there wasn’t much wiggle room for Charles after the catch, and he fumbled as he struggled to make something of it that wasn’t there.
“In hindsight, you look back, and I think Coach (Reid) would be the first one to tell you (he wished he) would have done anything different to try to get us in,” Smith said.
He added, “That’s not the way you want to start.”
It was a deflating sequence, but not a debilitating one.
DeVito sacked Manning on Denver’s next play to stem any momentum, and, as it happened, the Chiefs seized a 14-0 lead on a 34-yard run by Charles and Marcus Peters’ 55-yard interception return.
That, though, wasn’t enough to knock out the Broncos and Manning, who may not have the same arm strength but still has the savvy and heart of a champion.
By halftime, it was tied 14-14 on Manning’s two touchdown passes around a Smith interception.
You knew then that there was no layup to be had — and that the perfect script could just as easily be shredded as fulfilled.
It didn’t even seem safe for the Chiefs when Knile Davis’ 8-yard run gave them a 24-17 lead with 2:27 left.
And it wasn’t: The Broncos tied it on Manning’s 19-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders with 36 seconds left.
Nine seconds later, the Broncos took the lead … and yanked out the hearts and minds of Chiefs fans in the process.
It doesn’t mean the season is lost, of course, any more than it would have meant the season was won if they’d come through.
“In the end, it’s another game,” Smith said. “It’s one of 16 that we get, and in the end we’ve got everything we want in front of us.”
After a night they can’t put behind them soon enough, a night that was primed to be remembered instead of forgotten.