Marcus Peters speaks thoughtfully, almost reverentially about Peyton Manning, but the difference-making Chiefs rookie cornerback sure has a funny way of showing respect as Denver’s aging NFL icon suddenly reaches the twilight of a storied career.
Peters and the rest of the Chiefs’ defense gave us a visual we’ve never experienced before last Sunday in Denver, driving Manning to the bench in the third quarter with almost as many interceptions (four) as completions (five). It was Peters who set the tone for the worst game of Manning’s career, intercepting the quarterback’s first pass of the day, a badly underthrown wobbler that Peters easily pocketed on the game’s third play from scrimmage, leading to a Kansas City touchdown and jumpstarting a 29–13 Chiefs win.
Earlier this season, in Week 2 at Arrowhead Stadium, Peters had a pick-six against Manning in the Broncos’ comeback overtime victory, and if the end is nigh for Manning as it now appears likely, Peters will be the only cornerback in NFL history with such a dominant head-to-head record against No. 18: Two games, two interceptions, one taken to the house. Manning gets picked on, and picked off, by Peters.
So what was it like to be there on Sunday, witness to a game that could have signaled the end of an era in the NFL, with the injury-slowed Manning setting the league’s career passing yardage record but otherwise showing himself to be almost completely overmatched by Kansas City’s swarming defense?
“All you can say about Peyton is that he’s a legend in this game, man, and we respect that,” said Peters by phone on Wednesday, just before taking the field for a mid-day practice. “We did a cool thing this weekend. And it was amazing, getting a chance to face him twice. I got a chance to play in the game when he broke the record for passing yards, so it’s nothing but a huge amount of respect from me to even go out there and be a part of it, and to go against a great quarterback like he is. To be able to do what I did, that’s a big game for me personally, just on the level of how much of a fan I am of the game of football. That’s so big for me.”
Peters coming up big has been one of the predominant themes of Kansas City’s streaky season. The 18th pick in this spring’s draft gets my vote for Defensive Rookie of the Year, with four interceptions in nine games, twice as many as any other NFL rookie. He’s not going to break Dick “Night Train” Lane’s rookie record of 14 set on behalf of the 1952 Los Angeles Rams, but Peters logged an interception on his first NFL play in Week 1 at Houston, and his playmaking presence at cornerback has been everything the Chiefs could have hoped for this season.
And with the Chiefs’ talent-laden defense starting to assert itself on a weekly basis—a total of five interceptions and five sacks in the win at Denver—this season has taken a surprisingly hopeful turn in Kansas City. From the depths of sitting 1–5 and in last place in the AFC West after Week 6, with a five-game losing streak intact, the Chiefs (4–5) have surged to three consecutive wins and stand just a game behind Buffalo (5–4) for the AFC’s second wild-card spot. Even better, Kansas City plays host to the Bills in two weeks, after a game against the last-place Chargers (2–7) in San Diego on Sunday.
Kansas City’s optimism about a belated push for the playoffs is not misplaced. After their trip to San Diego this week, the Chiefs play four of their final six games at home and have just one game remaining against a team with a record at .500 or better, that being their visit from the up-and-down Bills (5–4). The rest of their final seven games include home and home dates with the division rival Raiders (4–5) and Chargers, as well as a road game at Baltimore (2–7) and a home game against Cleveland (2–8). Other than the Bills, those teams all feature defenses ranked in the bottom fourth of the league and appear ripe for the Chiefs’ offensive resurgence.
Only one NFL team has ever overcome a 1–5 start to make the playoffs—the 1970 Bengals went from 1–6 to an 8–6 wild-card berth—but no AFC wild-card contender is currently playing better than Andy Reid’s club. And should Kansas City be able to chase down Pittsburgh (6–4) in the wild-card race, the Chiefs’ Week 7 win over the Steelers could prove immensely helpful in any tiebreaker scenario. While Kansas City is clicking on both sides of the ball, having outscored its past two opponents 74–23, it’s the Chiefs defense that has sparked the turnaround. Kansas City hasn’t allowed more than 18 points in its past five games and is getting impact play from the likes of linebacker Justin Houston, Peters and safety Eric Berry, whose comeback from a battle with lymphoma is one of the stories of the year in the NFL this season.
At 1–5, with a string of disheartening losses like the five-turnover meltdown against Denver, a one-point defeat at home to Chicago and a six-point road loss at Minnesota, it would have been easy for the Chiefs to fold things up and start looking ahead to 2016. Especially with the team’s most dangerous playmaking weapon—running back Jamaal Charles—out for the season since Week 5 with an ACL injury. But Kansas City’s veteran leadership refused to buy into the wait-’til-next-year narrative.
“It feels real good to be back in this thing,” Peters says. “But it all started with Justin [Houston], Eric [Berry] and Alex [Smith], those guys just making sure that everyone knew how much potential we had and how good we can be if we just dive in a little bit more, you know? We had some rough games that we kind of let slip away from us early, but we knew that if all of us would really come together, and things started breaking right, it’d be a good fight for us. We have to keep taking a one-game approach. We have to win games individually. If we stay with that and we’re focused, we know that we’ve got a goal in reach.”
Until the Chiefs’ win at Denver, no one outside of Kansas City’s own locker room could perhaps see a path to the playoffs. After all, the Broncos had beaten the Chiefs seven times in a row with Manning at quarterback, with K.C.’s most recent win over the AFC West powerhouse coming in 2011, when Tim Tebow was still Denver’s quarterback.
All told, Manning had beaten the Chiefs 14 out of the 15 times he faced them, losing only on Halloween 2004 at Arrowhead while with the Colts. And Manning threw for 472 yards and five touchdowns in that 45–35 loss. Before the Chiefs pulled the upset, the Broncos hadn’t lost an AFC West game to anyone since San Diego in Week 15 of 2013—a 10-game division winning streak, including the playoffs.
Though they are still under .500, the Chiefs now look unmistakably dangerous as the season’s stretch run approaches. And having just started a stretch of four out of five games against AFC West foes, Kansas City may still even be able to throw a scare into the 7–2 first-place Broncos if they continue to swoon with the unproven Brock Osweiler taking over at quarterback for the reeling Manning.
“Even with how long it took for us to beat Peyton or Denver, we’re just trying to keep it in our mind what we can accomplish when we put something good on the table against quality teams like that,” says Peters, who has also contributed 13 passes defensed and 40 tackles this season. “We’re building and getting better, and moving toward our team goal. We’ve got Philip Rivers this week, and he’s an amazing quarterback who’s always making plays. So we have to take the same approach and go play our style of football, and let’s go try and get the W. It’s fun right now, and we’re just trying to keep that feeling around here.”
The first six weeks of the season were anything but enjoyable for the Chiefs, when all seemed lost. But then they finally conquered their nemesis, and in making Manning look all but finished, the Chiefs suddenly look like they're at the start of something good in Kansas City.