By the time the Chiefs’ Christmas night showdown against Denver kicked off, the pressure was gone. Pittsburgh won earlier Sunday, which meant Baltimore lost, and the Chiefs had officially clinched a playoff spot.
But the Chiefs’ 2016 season was never about simply making the playoffs. After winning their first playoff game in 22 years last season, the clearly defined goal for this team has always been the Super Bowl. And the road to Houston was always going to look a lot easier with a first-round bye and home playoff game.
The Chiefs’ 33-10 win over Denver on Sunday before an announced crowd of 76,671 at Arrowhead Stadium kept the dream alive.
The Chiefs can still win the AFC West and earn a first-round bye as the AFC’s No. 2 seed provided they beat San Diego in their regular-season finale and the Oakland Raiders, who lost starting quarterback Derek Carr for the season this weekend, lose on the road to the Broncos next Sunday.
Given how the Broncos (8-7) looked Sunday, that’s certainly not a given. After losing his first five games against the Broncos as the Chiefs’ head coach, Andy Reid collected his third straight win over Denver — his 10th straight AFC West victory — in blowout fashion.
“We got ourselves a Christmas present,” said Reid, whose team snapped a five-game losing streak to the Broncos at Arrowhead.
It doubled as a nice gift for Chiefs fans, many of whom were frustrated by the team’s playcalling in a 19-17 loss to the Tennessee Titans last weekend.
On Sunday, the Chiefs, who improved to 11-4, wasted no time getting their offensive playmakers involved. Dynamic rookie receiver Tyreek Hill, who had just one offensive touch last week, finished with six carries for 95 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown run.
“We’re trying to expand (his role) every week,” Reid said. “He’s an explosive player, he’s had experience at the running back position ... I thought he did a great job back there.”
Tight end Travis Kelce caught just three passes against the Titans but on Sunday finished with a season-high 11 catches for 160 yards — a new single-game team record for yards by a tight end, surpassing Tony Gonzalez’s 147 in 2000.
“Shout out to Tony G,” Kelce said with a laugh. “I hate to do it on Christmas, Tony. It’s an honor, it’s an honor. Eight-eight (Gonzalez’s uniform number) is the greatest ever to do it at my position, and to even be in the same sentence as him, it’s humbling.”
The play of Hill and Kelce — who Reid said was singled-covered “quite a bit” — complemented a defense that harrassed Denver quarterback Trevor Siemian all night as the Chiefs outgained the Broncos 484 yards to 246.
The Chiefs got on the board on their opening possession courtesy of a 10-yard scramble by quarterback Alex Smith, who was sprung by a nice block from Kelce.
They added to their lead on their next drive, when Hill took a handoff, sprinted to the edge and — after a massive lead block by Kelce — rocketed up the sideline for his 70-yard score.
At that point, the Chiefs were rolling. But their 14-0 lead would soon be compromised, as Smith, who was 25 of 36 for 244 yards, unleashed a floater over the middle after being drilled by a free blitzer. Safety Justin Simmons intercepted the pass and it returned it 38 yards, setting up a 1-yard touchdown run by Justin Forsett that cut the Chiefs’ lead to seven.
The Chiefs would respond, though. Reid dialed up a tight end screen for Kelce, who broke into the open and outran the defense for an 80-yard touchdown that gave the Chiefs a 21-7 lead, which they took into the second quarter.
Both teams blew field-goal opportunities in the second quarter. Cairo Santos missed a 39-yarder and Chiefs safety Eric Murray sniffed out a fake on a 53-yard attempt by the Broncos. But while Denver’s offense and defense struggled mightily (the Broncos were outgained 330-145 in the first half), they managed to kick a field goal and shut out the Chiefs’ offense in the second quarter to make it 21-10 at the break.
The third quarter was largely uneventful — each team punted twice and combined for 115 yards of offense. But the Chiefs padded their lead with a 27-yard field goal by Santos that not only made the score 24-10 but also marked the KC offense’s first second-half score in four games.
And after the Chiefs’ Anthony Sherman forced a fumble on the ensuing kick return, Santos connected on another field goal to pad the lead.
The Broncos continued to sputter from there. They turned the ball over again, courtesy of another fumble, and the Chiefs finished them off with an amusing twist.
Nose tackle Dontari Poe, who scored on a run dubbed “Hungry Pig Right” earlier this season, lined up as a Wildcat quarterback and threw a jump-pass to tight end Demetrius Harris for a 2-yard touchdown. After the game, Reid called the play a “bloated Tebow pass.”
“We’ve been practicing it for a few weeks now,” Poe said. “Practice makes perfect.”
It was a tough ending for the Broncos, the defending Super Bowl champions who saw their playoff hopes and run of divisional titles dashed with the loss.
“We had a great run of five AFC West titles,” cornerback Chris Harris, Jr., said. “I guess it’s time for someone else to win.”
A Chiefs team that has suffered its fair share of agonizing losses to Denver over the last four years had little sympathy.
With the win, they kept alive their dreams of an AFC West crown, a first-round bye and perhaps more heading into San Diego next weekend.
“We’re going to need some help,” Smith said of the Chiefs’ chances to win the AFC West title, “but we’ll see. We have to take care of our own deal.”