DENVER — There was no evidence suggesting the Broncos would give the Chiefs a game.
The Chiefs carried in a 12-game, six-year winning streak against the Broncos. The Chiefs were playing for a No. 1 AFC playoff seed and first-week postseason bye while the Broncos had good reason to keep their cars running in the parking lot.
Broncos head coach Vic Fangio was in jeopardy of losing his job while Chiefs head coach Andy Reid was going for his 250th career win, No. 5 on the all-time coaching list.
The Chiefs had sensational quarterback Patrick Mahomes II while the Broncos’ secondary was missing three of their top five cornerbacks in Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby and Nate Hairston, and starting safety Kareem Jackson was aslo out. And for good measure, starting right tackle Bobby Massie slipped on a patch of ice as he getting ready to head to the stadium, a fall that led to a concussion.
All this added up to the oddsmakers listing the Broncos as 10-point home underdogs.
But of course sports being the most unpredictable 3 1/2-hour movie in human history, the Broncos were leading the Chiefs midway through the fourth quarter and were driving for more when a Melvin Gordon III fumble was returned 86 yards for a touchdown by Kansas City linebacker Nick Bolton.
The gift gave the Chiefs a 28-24 win, their 13th in a row against the fighting Broncos.
"My hat goes off to Vic and the Broncos for the game they played,'' Reid said after he had to sweat out his milestone win. "I thought they played with great emotion and effort. I was glad we came out on the right end but Vic does a heckuva job and I respect the heck out of him and his football team. They’re tough.”
The Chiefs finished the regular season with a 12-5 record and currently have the No. 1 AFC playoff seed, although they will fall to No. 2 if Tennessee beats Houston on Sunday.
The Broncos finished with a four-game losing streak and 7-10 record, their fifth consecutive losing season.
"I'm tired of losing. I think everyone is tired of losing in this organization,'' said left tackle Garett Bolles. "You might not believe me but this is the closest group of dudes I've been around since I've been here for five years. I don't question one person's heart, I don't question one person's work ethic. I don't question anybody because we all want to turn this around. ...
"We know what we have at stake, we know what we need to do. We have a great GM in Mr. Paton who is going to turn this around. I have all my faith in him. ... I promise you all it's going to be a lot different around here next year."
Broncos Country now awaits the first decision general manager George Paton will make in the initial hours of the offseason. That will be on whether to fire or retain Fangio as head coach. Paton is expected to make the final call on Fangio perhaps as soon as Sunday morning but no later than Monday.
Sometimes the decision becomes evident in a bottom-line business. A poor finish and three consecutive losing seasons will make it difficult for Paton to rationalize keeping Fangio.
Yes, Fangio's teams have played with effort but the NFL is not a Try Hard League. It's a win-or-else business.
Even Fangio sounded almost resigned to his fate afterwards, slipping in a "they" with a 'we" and making an inadvertent past tense reference.
He skirted a question about his job status, saying: "The whole focus is on our players and on this team.''
"I wasn't surprised at all (the Broncos played hard),'' Mahomes said. "I could have told you at the beginning of the week this team, that cultural that they have of playing football, they play hard every single snap no matter what the situation is. Coach Fangio does a great job of getting those guys ready to go.''
On an overcast, 44-degree, rare Saturday afternoon game at Empower Field at Mile High, a modest crowd of 61,441 -- a season-most 14,571 paid for their ticket but didn't bother to show up -- that was otherwise laced with Chiefs’ red jerseys watched the all-blue uniformed Broncos flash an upset alert.
The Bronco fans who did attend let loose one last time.
"There's a lot of hostile environments (in the AFC West) especially Mile High,'' Mahomes said. "It's a great environment for football and they're loud. They were loud today.''
Almost every game has its momentum swings and the Chiefs were in dominant control early until special teamer Zayne Anderson was flagged for roughing Broncos punter Sam Martin in the first quarter. Which changed momentum.
Until then the Broncos offense had two, three-and-outs as quarterback Drew Lock misfired on some deep throws to Jerry Jeudy.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, methodically went 91 yards over 17 players on their first drive before Mahomes flipped a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide-open tight end Travis Kelce. It was 7-0 Chiefs as Mahomes scrambled for two first downs on the drive and had a 21-yard completion to Mecole Hardman.
"The first drive was disappointing, they kind of nibbled on us the whole way down,'' Fangio said. "We had our chances to make some plays, Mahomes made his plays. We had a hard time obviously all night getting the rush going. And he scrambled for several yards all night long in key plays. The plan was it was and it wasn't good enough in the end, but it gave us a chance.''
After the Kansas City defense stopped Lock and company on the next series, the roughing the punter penalty gave the Broncos a fresh set of downs at midfield. After three Javonte Williams runs picked up a first down, Broncos’ beleaguered offensive play caller Pat Shurmur came up with a ingenius beauty. First he called the Wildcat formation with the direct snap going to Williams. The rookie back then flipped to receiver Courtland Sutton on an end around. Sutton stopped and fired a 16-yard strike to tight end Noah Fant down the middle.
The Broncos had first and goal at the 6. One play later, Lock set up to pass from the pocket only to see the Chiefs’ defense part as if the QB was striking down a Moses staff. Lock ran it up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown.
It was 7-7 with seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The game continued to go the Broncos way. The Chiefs’ offense was playing star receiver Tyreek Hill on a limited basis after he appeared to hurt himself in pregame warmups. TV cameras caught him goofing around with a fellow receiver, leaping up to make a great catch in the end zone but he came to earth and may have jammed his heel. Hill played some but was limping noticeably in the second quarter. He had just one catch for 2 yards in the game, although that reception did convert a fourth-and-1 in the second half.
A Shelby Harris sack of Mahomes stopped the Chiefs’ second drive.
The Broncos began the next drive with Gordon rushing for 29 yards. It ended with Lock sprinting, again through a open middle for a 23-yard touchdown run. The Broncos were up 14-7 midway through the second quarter. Lock finished 12 of 24 for 162 yards, which wasn't bad considering he started 0 of 5.
The Broncos went 0-3 in Lock's end-of-season starts in place of the concussed Teddy Bridgewater. But Lock played well and most notably didn't commit a turnover in those three starts.
“I felt like with the play of myself and the guys around me, we put with ourselves in a good position to get a win today and we didn’t finish it,'' Lock said. "But I do feel like, you put me out there, there not a play can’t run with me. I can make a throw here. I can make a throw there. I was waiting for the opportunity to show you guys that I can run around. They gave it to me today. That’s not a surprise to me. I can go into the locker room and have fun with these guys and fire them up, get them ready to play and I feel like that’s exactly what we saw today.”
Tim Patrick caught 6 passes for 95 yards.
Mahomes was 27 of 44 but for a relatively modest 270 yards and two touchdowns. He made some incredible off-script throws, but the Denver D didn't break on a first-and-goal at the 6 opportunity in the second quarter and the Chiefs settled for a short Harrison Butker field goal.
"In my career, (Fangio) has been one of the toughest guys I've gone up against,'' Mahomes said. "He does a lot great things. You see his disciples all around the league. They did a lot of different shells and mixed coverages, brought a couple blitzes here and there and that's what he does. He keeps you on your toes. He doesn't stay in one coverage. He does whatever he things is best for his team and whoever's out there."
The game opened up in the second half with the Chiefs efficiently going 75 yards on their first drive that was concluded on a 14-yard catch-and-run by Chiefs' scatback Jerrick McKinney. That put Kansas City up, 17-14.
But the Broncos answered on their first drive of the second half. Lock made his best throw of the game, a 31-yard pass down the hashes to Tim Patrick who caught the ball over his shoulder. Gordon then exploded through a huge hole and outsprinted the Chiefs' secondary for a 47-yard touchdown.
The Broncos were back up, 21-17.
The Chiefs' Butker drilled a 51-yard field goal a few seconds into the fourth quarter to narrow the score to 21-20.
But Lock started getting hot in the fourth quarter. He mixed in completions to Gordon, Sutton, Patrick and Williams with Williams and Gordon runs to set up second and 2 at the Chiefs 9 with 7:42 left in the game. But a handoff to Gordon, who had 114 yards rushing on 11 carries at that point, was blown up behind the line by Chiefs outside linebacker Melvin Ingram III, who beat tight end Albert Okwuegbunam off the line.
Gordon tried to spin away but the ball popped loose. Bolton picked it up while standing and started to sprint the other way. He easily brushed off a Lock tackle attempt and raced 86 yards for a go-ahead score. Mahomes ran in the 2-point conversion and the Chiefs were up, 28-21.
“As far as seeing Melvin (Ingram) of all people—who I kind of look up to— made the play on me, but it just happened so fast I don’t think I really had full control of the ball yet,'' Gordon said. "I was trying to spin and get out the way to try to stop from getting a loss. He made a great play, and I’ve got to be better there. I don’t know—it was a tough one.”
Afterwards, Fangio had only words of praise, not criticism of Gordon.
“I love Melvin,'' Fangio said. "Melvin is a tough sucker. Runs hard, great teammate, good person. Everything to me about Melvin Gordon is top-shelf.”
Even if Gordon has also been a fumbler in his career, he didn't have much chance to put the ball away before he was blasted by Ingram, his former teammate with the Chargers. Gordon rushed for 986 and 918 yards in his two seasons with the Broncos. He scored 20 combined touchdowns rushing and receiving. He also fumbled six times.
After the Bolton go-ahead touchdown return, Lock answered with quick completions of 29 yards to Patrick and 28 yards to Jeudy but the drive stalled in the red zone and the Broncos settled for a short Brandon McManus field goal that narrowed the score to 28-24 with 4:37 remaining.
It did make sense for Fangio to take the field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-9 from the Chiefs' 13.
“Your odds are very low, through analytics and all that,'' Fangio said. "I understand the second-guessing there but on fourth-and-9, your chances are not great.”
What really brought out the second guessing is the Denver D for at least the third time this season couldn't get the ball back to its offense with 4-plus minutes remaining in a one-score game.
The Chiefs were able to eat up the final 4:37 as the Broncos ran out of timeouts while Mahomes took three knees inside the Denver 10 to end the game.
They fought. They competed. But once again the Broncos were not better team in the end.
“I just want to start by saying, I want to apologize to Broncos Country and the fans,'' said safety Justin Simmons. "I know the last few years have been tough to watch and not winning and not being in the postseason.
"My goal—obviously with the (contract) extension but ever since I’ve been here and have slowly been taking on a leadership role -- is to get back to where this organization is used to. It doesn’t mean much saying it right here, right now, but we’ll remember this down the road when we get there.''
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