It was all set up perfectly for the Kansas City Chiefs early in their Thursday Night showdown at Arrowhead Stadium against the Broncos. Before it all turned, before Peyton Manning's touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders tied it with 36 seconds left in the game, and before Jamaal Charles fumbled (for the second time) with 26 seconds left and Bradley Roby returned it for a touchdown to win the game 31-24 for Denver, before all of that, the Chiefs had this game just where they wanted it.
This was the time the Chiefs would beat the Broncos for the first time in the Peyton Manning era, and assert themselves as favorites for the AFC West title. They led 14-0 with six minutes left in the second quarter, all the momentum was theirs, and their very good defense was going up against a 39-year-old quarterback who after almost two quarters looked done, truly done for good this time. The game was there for the taking. And they lost it anyway.
Manning finished off his ugly half with two touchdowns, one on a 10-play, 80-yard drive and another after an Aqib Talib interception at the Chiefs 20, and suddenly it was 14-14. The fourth quarter was stuck at 17-all before the Chiefs took a 24-17 lead with 2:27 remaining. That looked like it would do it—Peyton Manning would have to be the hero, and despite the two touchdowns late in the first half, he was still missing plenty of throws and looking less than threatening. But then, old, worn down, 39-year-old Peyton Manning marched the Broncos down the field on another 10-play, 80-yard drive culminating in that touchdown pass to Sanders. Nine seconds later, Charles fumbled and the Chiefs, with five total turnovers in this game, found themselves on the losing end of this AFC West rivalry for the seventh straight game.
Some other key thoughts off the Broncos' dramatic win:
1. Peyton's Place is out of the shotgun: Peyton Manning's end is near. But it's not here just yet. Gary Kubiak's offense wasn't utilized properly at the beginning of this game. Before the two late touchdowns, Manning had a first half that was consistently awful. He was taking almost every snap from under center and looked completely out of sync. His young, weak offensive line wasn't protecting him from the Chiefs' relentless pressure, he was missing targets, and he looked rattled and resigned. Then, with around five minutes left in the second quarter, he operated primarily of the shotgun, and he got a bit of his groove back. He was completing short passes to his receivers outside and occasionally attempting a deep ball. In his first five drives of the game, he was 6-9 for 47 yards and a pick six. For the rest of the first half, after he moved into shotgun, he was 7-10 for 70 yards and two touchdowns. For the remainder of the game, the Broncos looked more like Adam Gase's old offense than Kubiak and Rick Dennison's. The run game that Kubiak wants to hone in on is going to be key to the Broncos' success this year, but if they're going to go far, Manning has to be able to use his brain—his most valuable asset—and maintain some semblance of control over the offense. He's not the Peyton Manning of old anymore, but as he showed at the end of the first and second halves, can still work a little bit of his old magic. He just has to be allowed to.
2. There was some egregious play calling going on here: Take your pick for the worst of the head-scratching play calls: Was it the Chiefs' decision on their opening drive of the game, after moving all the way down inside the Broncos' five yard-line, to call four plays inside the five that started backwards or sideways? The Chiefs' calls with a first-and-goal at the three resulted in the following: A loss of two yards, a loss of three yards, an incomplete pass to Jeremy Maclin, and a sideways pass to Jamaal Charles that lost a yard and then ended in a lost fumble. Then, there was Gary Kubiak's bizarre choice to call an end around to Emmanuel Sanders on fourth-and-one (spoiler alert: it didn't work). And of course, there was Andy Reid's decision to have Alex Smith throw the ball with 2:20 left in the second quarter instead of handing off to Jamaal Charles and killing the clock. This would have made very little sense regardless of the situation, but Peyton Manning just completed a 10-play drive that ended in his first touchdown pass all season, and he finally appeared to have some rhythm going. Why give him the chance at getting the ball back with a reasonable amount of time left? The obvious answer was to run it. Instead, Alex Smith threw it, poorly, toward Jeremy Maclin, Aqib Talib made a tremendous read on it, picked it off, and by the end of the half, the game was tied.
3. The AFC West will be won on defense: The Chiefs' fate for the rest of the season, like the Broncos', will be in the hands of their defense. There wasn't a point scored in this game until the 9:11 of the second quarter. The Chiefs, especially early, were getting consistent pressure in Peyton Manning's face. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was aggressive with the fearsome duo of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, and Smith was sacked four times (one each for Ware, Miller, Antonio Smith and Malik Jackson), while Manning went down three times (two for Justin Houston and one for Mike DeVito). We already know what the Broncos' cornerbacks can do, but Kansas City's rookie corner Marcus Peters showed for the second straight week the kind of impact he can have, with one pick-six, five solo tackles, and four passes defensed. The Chiefs got him with the 18th overall pick out of Washington, and as each week goes by, that looks more and more like a major steal.