DENVER — What the Broncos won't do to lose a close one.
They'll lose close to a bad team (the Colts) when they can't score a touchdown. They'll lose close to a good team (the Ravens) when they blow a fourth quarter lead. And Sunday against those unbeatable (if not quite so mighty) Kansas City Chiefs, the Broncos made it close even though they started in a 27-0 hole.
The Broncos' best offensive performance in their otherwise highly disappointing season only produced another close margin of defeat, this time by a 34-28 score against the wondrous if erratic Patrick Mahomes II and the Chiefs on a remarkably comfortable mid-December afternoon before a soldout, mixed gathering of Broncos and Chiefs fans at Empower Field at Mile High.
It was the league-leading 8th, one-score loss by the Broncos this season.
A moral victory in defeat, of sorts?
“We’re 3-10. We lost,'' said Broncos' safety Justin Simmons. "Yes, you can take positives away, but at the end of the day, we lost.
"Obviously, it was great that we fought back, it was great that there were takeaways, it was great that we were scoring off the takeaways, but it'd be a different story if we were 10-3 and this happened but we're not.”
It's the Chiefs who are 10-3 and on the verge of clinching their seventh consecutive AFC West Division title after extending their winning streak against the Broncos to 14 games and more than 7 years in a row.
A moral victory in defeat, of sorts?
“The goal is to win. We all know that,'' said Broncos head coach Nathaniel Hackett. "But to watch these guys when you're down 27-0—everybody had a choice on how they wanted to continue that game. I'm so impressed with all those guys—defense, offense, special teams. They didn't blink, they stayed together.
"It was awesome. We have to finish. We had opportunities to continually win that game. I appreciate that, and that is kind of that moral victory, but we want to win the game. We had a chance to. But the fight that these guys have is awesome.”
Mahomes was both brilliant in lifting the Chiefs to a 27-0 lead here Sunday and careless in throwing three interceptions that nearly brought the Broncos all the way back.
There is a joyful, schoolkid element to the way Mahomes plays, as if he's messing around in 6th grade recess in Tyler, Texas. Running around, making it up as he goes, proper fundamentals be darned. There was a play Mahomes made early in the game Sunday that had the home team thinking it was illegal.
At recess, though, there are no rules.
It was third and 2 on the Chiefs’ 44. Mahomes scrambled away from pressure right, scrambled right some more, started to move up to run for the first down – and then as the Denver defense moved in to get him, he side swiped a throw forward to running back Jerick McKinnon. The tiny but swift and strong running back had played enough with Mahomes to know to stay alive while his quarterback was alive. McKinnon broke toward the goal line, caught the off-angled pass in the wide open and sprinted in for a 56-yard touchdown.
Broncos fans gasped while Chiefs Kingdom – which traveled in force – roared its approval. The Chiefs were up, 13-0.
“I was committed to running,'' Mahomes said. "I saw that I was probably going to get hit like I did last week in Cincinnati, so I just kind of flicked it. I was just trying to get it to him whatever way possible. I just flicked it. He made a great play after and some guys made some blocks down field and he scored a touchdown. I just have to find that fine line of when I am doing that kind of stuff and it is good for us versus when it is bad for us.”
Mahomes threw another touchdown pass to McKinnon off a well-conceived screen, Travis Kelce became the fifth tight end in NFL history to surpass 10,000 receiving yards, and linebacker Willie Gay picked off a short pass by Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown to put Kansas City up, 27-0 with less than 3 minutes remaining in the half.
The Broncos rallied. Ferociously. Broncos receiver Jerry Jeudy caught three touchdown passes -- two from Wilson and the third from backup Brett Rypien who replaced the concussed Wilson and threw a fourth-and-goal, 7-yard scoring pass to the back of the end zone with 10:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.
It was Mahomes who both buried the Broncos early, only to give them life in the middle portion of the game, and finally engineer a time-consuming, end-of-game series to finish them off.
“A heck of a football game, great game,'' said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. "My hat goes off to Nathaniel and the job that he's done here. Those guys never gave up, down 27 to nothing. Tribute to the offense and defense playing hard, the second quarterback comes in, and they still continue to play hard.
Schoolyard player that he is, Mahomes got careless late in the first half and was picked off on back-to-back possessions on passes across the middle. The first by linebacker Josey Jewell set up the Broncos for an 18-yard touchdown pass from Wilson -- who also showed for nearly three quarters that two can play the schoolyard game -- to Jerry Jeudy with 1:35 left in the first half.
The second Mahomes' interception went to Pat Surtain II, who made a diving catch just before the ball hit the ground for his first pick of the year. That set up another Wilson touchdown pass to Jeudy with 9 seconds remaining.
"It felt good, man,'' Surtain said. "I've been waiting on one. It was a game-changing play for the team. That's what we needed. The first one is always something you're going to remember. It was the opportunity I needed.''
Earlier in the second quarter, Jeudy was shown losing his cool in frustration, yanking his helmet off while animately screaming and yelling in rage. Jeudy made contact with an official during his tantrum but was fortunate he was not flagged or even ejected.
“On that certain play, I got held,'' Jeudy said. "I was just frustrated because we didn’t have things going, so I was out there playing with frustration wanting to make a play for my team. I feel like at that point, I was just held and that should’ve been called but I have to know how to control my anger and just move on from there.”
To open the second half, Broncos' play caller Klint Kubiak asked for a screen pass at the right time. The Chiefs brought heavy pressure but Wilson dumped a screen to running back Marlon Mack, who cut, darted, broke a tackle and fell into the end zone for a 66-yard touchdown play.
In a game clock span of 3 minutes, 32 seconds, the score went from 27-0 Chiefs to 27-21 here-come-the-Broncos.
There were 73,389 fans who attended the AFC West game on a 62-degree sunny mid-December Sunday afternoon in Denver. It was supposed to be chillier as the game was supposed to kick off more than 4 hours later for Sunday Night Football. But the network executives figured the Broncos weren’t worth a primetime audience and even with the wondrous, must-see Mahomes on the visitor’s side, the Broncos-Chiefs were flexed back to an afternoon start.
Sunday Night Football missed a doozy. After the game’s first timeout, the Broncos played a nice video tribute for former receiver great Demaryius Thomas on the jumbo boards to mark the one-year anniversary of his death. Players on both sidelines watched and applauded the tribute along with the fans.
Mahomes may explain why there were less than 2,700 no-shows – and why roughly 30 percent of those in attendance wearing Chiefs’ red gear.
Mahomes made another ridiculous off-script touchdown pass in the third quarter, circling on a scrambler, getting hit by three Broncos, but finding enough time for receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to slide open in the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown pass. That put the Chiefs up 34-21 as the wild game moved into the fourth quarter.
The Broncos answered thanks to two fourth-down conversions. The first, a fourth-and-4 heave by Wilson to Jeudy drew a 40-yard pass interference penalty on Chiefs' rookie Trent McDuffie.
The Broncos had first down at the Chiefs' 15. Two offensive holding penalties made it second-and-34, but a Wilson pass to double-covered tight end Greg Dulcich was batted and coralleled for a 23-yard gain. On third and 11, Wilson scrambled to the 2-yard line but was blasted and lay hurt on the field.
Wilson seemed to be knocked out for a second as players around him hurredly waved out the Broncos medical team. He came to and groggily walked off the field, then seemed to recover as he jogged to the medical tent but he didn't fool the doctors and was ruled to have suffered a concussion, ending his game.
Wilson was immediately placed in the league's concussion protocol.
With Wilson sidelined, Rypien came off the bench and while first and goal at the 2 became fourth and goal at the 7, he didn't get rattled. Rypien calmly stayed in the pocket and drilled a touchdown to Jeudy in the back of the end zone.
“It’s not ideal but the mindset is, ‘Go win the game,''' Rypien said of coming in at moment's notice. "Whatever it takes. Obviously, I’ve never been in a situation like that before, especially when you come in and you’re down on their 5-yard line. It’s kind of nice. I wish every drive started like that.
It was 34-28 Chiefs with about 11 minutes left.
Mahomes was picked off by Jewell again deep in Broncos' territory.
"It was just three bad decisions,'' Mahomes said. "The third one was just bad because of the situation. We are in field goal range, especially at altitude, and if I throw the ball away we can let (kicker) Harrison (Butker) end the game.
"Luckily for me, the rest of the team stepped up. The defense made a lot of stops in critical moments.''
Indeed, the Chiefs got their own interception off Rypien, who was clobbered by Chris Jones as he threw. The ball popped up in the air and Kansas City safety L'Jarius Sneed made an easy interception. It was the 11th quarterback hit the Chiefs' defense recorded.
“We had a play call where we had Jerry on a slant route and I maybe could have fit it into him initially,'' Rypien said. "It was kind of tough to tell whether the safety was going to make a play on it. Once I got outside the pocket, I just have to communicate better because I thought we had an opportunity to go deep and just a little hesitation allowed 95 (Jones) to come around the edge and make that play. Frustrating because I thought I had a good one-on-one there.”
The Chiefs got the ball back with 4:20 remaining.
"We needed one more stop it is that simple,'' said Jewell, who besides his two picks also tied for the team lead with 10 tackles.
They picked up one first down on two McKinnon runs, another first down on a third-and-11 completion from Mahomes to Marques Valdes-Scantling for 20 yards, and a third on a McKinnon run.
Hackett had to burn all three timeouts and another stoppage, the 2-minute warning, arrived with the Chiefs on the Broncos' 44, second and 10. A 10-yard by Isiah Pacheco clinched for the Chiefs as once again the Denver D couldn't get off the field in the final 4 minutes.
The Denver defense gave up a season-most 431 yards to the Chiefs.
Mahomes' three picks spoiled what had been a stellar performance in which he completed 28 of 42 for 352 yards and three touchdowns.
"Every quarterback that has played in this league for a while has a game like that,'' Reid said. "The one great thing about him is, he kept firing and had a lot of big plays and so you can't take away the three interceptions but there sure were some good ones in between those and it's a great learning experience but every great one’s had that as well.''
McKinnon had seven catches for 112 yards with the two touchdowns. Kelce had four catches for 71 yards and now has 10,045 yards in his career. (1,247 of those yards have come in 16 games against the Broncos). Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, Antonio Gates and Shannon Sharpe are the other four tight ends who have broke the 10,000-yard milestone.
“Honestly, right now the win means more than any of those stats,'' Kelce said. "Everybody's kind of been talking about me getting those stats at some point this year so it was on everybody's radar but to come up here and get a win and be a part of the crowd that is the 10,000 crew: Gates, Witten, Gonzalez, Shannon Sharpe, Broncos, the main guy who I was chasing today. Obviously, all those guys are unbelievable company and very fortunate that I've had the coaches and the players around me to be able to have this much success in the NFL as I have.”
Wilson was 23 of 36 for 247 yards andf three touchdowns with the one interception. He was also the Broncos' leading rusher with 57 yards off 4 scrambles. Wilson is in the concussion protocol and his status for next Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals will be in question all week. Wilson was sacked 6 times.
Rypien was 4 of 8 for 16 yards with an impressive touchdown considering he was cold off the bench and an unfortunate interception in that his throw was altered by Jones.
"I’m just frustrated,'' Rypien said. "Frustrated that I couldn’t get it done. Especially after how hard Russ fought. How hard our offense fought. We’ve been through a lot this year and just seeing him battle every single day. I’m just so proud of that (offensive) room. It’s just tough.”
Jeudy had 8 catches for 73 yards and the three scores.
“This team -- we never finish how we want to but one thing I can say for sure is that we never quit,'' Jeudy said.
Left guard Dalton Risner couldn’t quite shake a shoulder injury and didn’t dress in the game. It was his first missed game this season. He and receiver Courtland Sutton, who was out with a hamstring injury, had started the first 12 games. …
Luke Wattenberg, a 5th-round rookie from Washington, made his first NFL start in place of Risner. However, Wattenberg struggled and was replaced first by Netane Muti, who then rotated series with Quinn Bailey in the second half. ...
Running back Mike Boone was carted off the field with what was later diagnosed as a severe high ankle sprain. It's the same ankle and high sprain that put him on 4-week injured reserved last month. If it's the same recovery time, Boone's season will be finished as the Broncos have only four games remaining.
Boone will be a free agent after this season. He was effective when healthy the past two seasons with the Broncos but he was oft-injured. ...
No. 2 receiver Kendall Hinton had five catches for 38 yards but left the game with a hamstring injury. Backup outside linebacker Jacob Martin aggravated a knee injury.
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