DENVER -- This was, of course, the working assumption all along with these Kansas City Chiefs. We were waiting to see their obvious weakness exploited. The standings said the Chiefs were a "perfect'' 9-0 entering Sunday night's AFC West showdown against Denver, but everyone knew where their vulnerability was.
If they get ahead, they're likely going to stay ahead. But if they fall behind, well, Sunday night at Sports Authority Field told the sad story on that front.
The Chiefs have many strengths, but they simply aren't made to play catch-up ball, or deal with a deficit of any magnitude. The first opponent to put them into a significant hole was going to beat them, and that eventuality came to pass against Denver, which got out to a 10-0 first-quarter lead and was never truly in danger of losing to the NFL's last remaining unbeaten team.
The 1972 Dolphins might be celebrating with their ritual champagne -- their 17-0 perfect season is still a singular event -- but it was Kansas City that learned a sobering truth about itself against Denver.
Make no mistake, the Broncos' 27-17 victory over Kansas City did not represent Denver's best punch -- far from it. The Chiefs still couldn't take it. Kansas City has thrived by winning low-scoring games this season, and this wasn't even low-scoring enough for its purposes. The Broncos (9-1) at one point built a 14-point advantage over the Chiefs, and with the way K.C. is built to win, 14-point deficits are very tall mountains to climb.
"They got us today,'' said Chiefs first-year head coach Andy Reid, experiencing defeat for the first time since his last game in Philadelphia, last Dec. 30. "To start with, when you've got the opportunity to score touchdowns against this team, you've got to score touchdowns and not kick field goals. I thought out defense gave us (a chance). But we've got to take full advantage of that.''
The Chiefs (9-1) didn't fail miserably in this big-stage setting, but they did fail. And the skeptics will say this is what happens when Reid's team isn't facing a backup quarterback, as it seemed to do so often over the course of its somewhat charmed season. Or they will say that this is what happens when the Chiefs' running game doesn't dominate, their pass rush doesn't overwhelm, and their game-manager quarterback (Alex Smith) doesn't have a lead to preserve and protect. This game illustrated that Kansas City's margin of error is relatively small on offense, and it can't survive against good teams when it turns the ball over in the red zone (as it did on fullback Anthony Sherman's fumble at Denver's 16-yard line in the first quarter), or settles for chip-shot field goals (a 20-yarder by Ryan Succop in the second quarter) instead of touchdowns.
The Chiefs were never really out of this game, but in some ways, it felt as if they were never really in it, either. That's the problem with a team that isn't equipped or constructed to score quickly or play from behind. A two-score game feels like it's out of reach, and a double-digit deficit seems like it carries the weight of a much larger gap.
Coming into the Denver game, the Chiefs hadn't faced any deficit larger than seven points this season. That makes sense for a team that tied an NFL record of not allowing more than 17 points in any of its first nine game. The Chiefs have played their share of tight games, but they haven't faced the firepower that the Broncos can throw at you, and the challenge Sunday night was to keep up with a Denver team on a record scoring pace.
"Well, not good enough,'' said Smith, when asked how he felt this team fared playing from substantially behind for the first time this season. "I felt like we put ourselves in holes and didn't start fast enough in the first quarter. We got behind and they got us one dimensional. When they get up a couple scores, you have to answer. We weren't able to get it done tonight. In the third quarter, we had a couple chances to make that game tight, and we couldn't get it done. We hurt ourselves with penalties and with a turnover in the red zone.''
This time, the Chiefs' defense did not ride to the rescue of the less-than-explosive Kansas City offense, as it did in Week 9 at Buffalo, when a pair of second-half defensive touchdowns helped the Chiefs out-last the Bills. Kansas City came into the Denver game leading the NFL in sacks with 36, but never laid a hand on banged-up Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. Denver's 37-year-old QB threw 40 passes, completing 24 for 323 yards and a touchdown, but never had to endure any more pounding on his sore right ankle, on which he wore a brace that was visible through his sock.
Zero hits on Manning had to be this game's most shocking headline, but the Broncos' offensive line did yeoman work, Manning moved away from pressure in the pocket adeptly, and the Chiefs' pass rush has been a bit slacking of late. After getting to opposing quarterbacks 35 times in the season's first seven games, K.C. has just one sack in its past three games, and its good fortune of facing quarterbacks named Gabbert, Fitzpatrick, Keenum, Pryor, Campbell and Tuel ended abruptly when it stepped up in weight class against the likes of Manning -- gimpy or not.
"I thought he did a good job of getting the ball out fast, and I thought he worked the pocket pretty well,'' Reid said. "There were times when we had pressure and you saw him slide and throw opposite (side), which isn't an easy thing to do. He's a pretty good quarterback. He did that and got away with a couple that most guys wouldn't be able to get away with.''
Smith and the Chiefs' passing offense tried to take their shots down the field at times, but they couldn't produce the chunks of yardage needed to keep up with the Broncos. Smith's longest completion went for 26 yards, to receiver Dwayne Bowe, and his 21-of-45 passing night for 230 yards, to go with three sacks and two touchdowns, wasn't enough to hang with Manning. It was two teams bringing different kinds of weapons to the same fight, and the results were predictable.
Denver scored 10 more points than Kansas City had allowed all season, and the 17 points the Chiefs scored normally would have won most of their games. But not this one. Not with the Broncos throwing for 323 yards, or 50 more than K.C. had given up to any opponent. Not with running back Jamaal Charles totaling a good but not great 78 yards rushing on 16 carries. And not with the Chiefs committing nine penalties for 53 yards.
"It's terrible. It's not fun,'' said Smith, of losing, after bringing a starting record of 28-5-1 since the beginning of 2011 into the game. "As great as it is to win, it's that lousy when you lose, especially in a division game, Sunday Night Football. It's a big game and a big environment. To come here and come up short hurts and stings. But it's good in some ways. We have to find a way to deal with it. How many teams have ever gone undefeated given the history of football? We have to find a way to get better and prepare for next week. We see them again in two weeks, but we have to prepare for another big division game next week against San Diego. These games keep getting bigger.''
That they do, and the question the Chiefs left unanswered by this game is whether they will be able to elevate their play as the stakes rise? The thinking was that Kansas City could find a silver lining for the rematch in two weeks even with a loss Sunday night, providing they roughed up Manning a little bit and maybe got him to aggravate his tender ankles, or at the very least proved they could stay on the field and slug it out with the high-scoring Broncos. But they seemingly accomplished neither of those goals, and that is sure to affect how the Chiefs approach the rematch in Arrowhead in Week 13.
The Chiefs found out Sunday that Denver can beat them playing Kansas City's type of game more readily than they can match the Broncos' style of play. For now, the doubts about the Chiefs' vulnerabilities didn't get erased, they only got accentuated. Maybe the story will be different in two weeks. But maybe the AFC West shifted for good here with this outcome, as our assumptions about Kansas City's offensive limitations proved true.