KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They try to be someone else, and when they look in the mirror all they see is themselves.
After an embarrassing week of mask fines, motherly Facebook posts and jokes about a QB-free performance, the Broncos grew tired of the face staring back in the mirror.
They finally did what their fans have been seeking in this rivalry. They threw the first punch, they didn’t flinch, they stood in the center of the ring and acted like they belonged.
Playing in front of roughly 15,000 fans, many of whom revived tailgating traditions in the parking lot, the Broncos showed pride and resolve on the national stage. They failed to produce a win, falling 22-16, but their effort revealed fight that provides reason for hope over the final four games.
“Our team played extremely hard with a lot of might. We gave ourselves a chance against a really good team,” coach Vic Fangio said. “It was a little better performance, but you have to be better. There are no moral victories. I came here expecting to win.”
At half, the Broncos led 10-9. With 3:50 remaining in the third quarter after Tim. Toe. Tapped his way into the end zone (That would be Tim Patrick). They had a chance to pull off the upset midway through the fourth quarter.
In the end, the avalanche of history smothered them, even as two negated Tyreek Hill touchdowns kept them and hope in a clingy relationship. The Broncos have dropped 11 straight to the Chiefs, matching their longest skid against Kansas City set from 1964-69. They sunk to 3-19 in December in Kansas City. Only three quarterbacks have won here in this month: Peyton Manning, John Elway and Kyle Orton.
The Broncos suspended reality, nearly making fiction a fact. They had an opportunity to win after Hill’s 48-yard score was nullified. It was not taken off the board because Hill failed to land his backflip in the end zone — he cares little what the opponent think — but because of holding.
Denver took over needing one last push. Instead, the promise thawed in the cold as Lock and K.J Hamler failed to connect on a third-and-third from the Broncos’ 49-yard line.
“I strongly considered going for it on fourth down,” Fangio said, who was in the mode of “being aggressive” in the game. “But we needed to get a stop.”
Denver punted, also a risk with Kansas City’s full-throttle offense. The Chiefs put on their mud flaps with a 10-play, 55-yard drive that siphoned over 5 minutes off the clock and resulted in a field goal.
It feels odd to even mention consolation prizes for a franchise that won a Super Bowl in 2015. But we are here. The playoffs require a telescope and an abacus to figure out the Broncos’ dim odds.
However, this game showed progress, and really that is what this season is about. The Broncos are rebuilding, regardless if those words are uttered. Closing the gap on the Chiefs showed the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a semi.
Lock almost joined the exclusive club by learning from mistakes, throwing a pair of touchdowns after an initial gaffe. The Broncos followed the Fred Astaire dance steps for success, gorging the clock, winning on the ground — Melvin Gordon had 105 yards rushing at half and finished with 131 — and stiffening in the red zone: They blanked the Chiefs in red zone touchdowns in their first four trips.
What seemed like a fluke showed roots in the third quarter when Lock connected with Patrick on a breathtaking 10-yard touchdown pass. Patrick cradled the ball onto this helmet and managed to keep his feet in bounds. The Broncos secured a 16-12 cushion, and, against the math, went for two and failed. Still, an advantage in the second half was a rumor in this recent rivalry, the Broncos outscored 96-25 in the three previous games.
The game’s first drive provided a snapshot of Lock’s inconsistency. He converted a third down with a 37-yard dime to tight end Noah Fant. Two plays later, Lock eluded a sack, scrambled and right and fell for the banana in the tailpipe again. Rather than throw the ball away or dump it down to tight end Nick Vannett — the Broncos were in field goal range at the Chiefs’ 34-yard line — Lock floated a changeup into Tyrann Mathieu’s hands as Troy Fumagalli, not even the Broncos’ press box roster, flailed helplessly.
It represented Lock’s fourth interception in three games against the Chiefs. He added a fifth on the game’s final drive. Mistakes happen. Those who repeat them end up watching in the NFL. Lock rebounded in his second drive, wisely tucking and running for eight yards on third down, setting up Brandon McManus’ 53-yard field goal. He is eight-for-10 from at least 50 yards this season. A miss from 57 yards set the stage for the Chiefs to cut into the Broncos’ lead as half expired.
“I believe in Brandon. It just didn’t work out,” Fangio said.
The Chiefs shifted into third gear, racing down the field to tying the score at 3. But as Justin Simmons noted last week, holding the Chiefs to field goals represents a win. Denver cannot match Kansas City’s talent, but luck remains a great equalizer. At the 10:51 mark, the Chiefs, apparently so greedy, spotted the Broncos a touchdown. Hill, the NFL’s leading receiver, jumped for a pass, and on the deflection the ball landed in his belly. The Chiefs did not see it, and Hill failed to argue his case.
It was the first of two defining moments in the first half.
The Broncos were cool with trading a touchdown with a punt.
They capitalized behind Gordon. Running with power and purpose, Gordon galloped 65 yards for his longest run of the season, setting up one of Pat Shurmur’s best-designed plays of the season. On second-and-5 from the 5-yard line, after an illegal shift negated a score, Patrick lined up in the backfield. He pointed out a blitzer, clearly bluffing, then raced to the corner with leverage, for a seamless touchdown. The 10-3 advantage raised eyebrows.
The Chiefs got too cute in their next red zone appearance, trying a reverse, that forced a field goal. McManus’ rare miss with 33 seconds left flipped the field and allowed the Chiefs to score as time expired. Not many had the Broncos with a one-point advantage.
Denver hung around. Yes, that sounds like hollow praise. But this chilly Sunday night showed the Broncos can compete. It is the first of many steps on the road to relevance.
“The reality is that to close the gap on the Chiefs you have to beat them,” said Lock, who finished 15 of 28 for 151 yards. “A close loss gets you a sad flight home.”
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