Do you play for the tie or play for the win?
Denver coach Gary Kubiak opted for the latter when he likely could have had the former. He wound up with neither.
With the Broncos and Chiefs tied at 27 with 1:08 remaining in overtime, Kubiak found himself facing a fourth-and-10 from the Kansas City 44. Had Denver punted there, the Chiefs may not have had the time (or the motivation) to test the limits of how quickly they could drive into field-goal range. The odds at that point certainly pointed toward a punt ending Sunday night’s thrilling game in a tie.
Instead, Kubiak opted for the 62-yard field goal attempt, giving his big-legged kicker Brandon McManus a shot to blast one through the cold Mile High air for the win. McManus’s kick wasn’t even close—it started left and just kept hooking.
As a result, Kansas City took over at the Denver 48, needing just a field goal to win, with a minute on the clock and a timeout in its pocket. Two Alex Smith completions pushed the ball into field-goal range. The Chiefs’ Cairo Santos then banked one in off the left upright to seal a dramatic 30–27 win.
Kansas City now sits at 8–3, all alone in the AFC’s first wild-card spot and just a game back of the Raiders for first in the West. Denver, at least temporarily, has dropped out of the playoff picture. The Broncos (7–4) sit at seventh in the AFC, behind resurgent Miami due to the conference-record tiebreaker.
So, Kubiak’s decision carries significant repercussions. His team faces an even tougher climb to the playoffs because it backfired.
"The fact that we had no timeouts probably made it—made me want to go in that direction," Kubiak said after the game. "If you did have your timeouts, maybe, maybe you think about punting it down there and see if you can get the ball back. I don't know. But we're going to try to win, and I've seen B-Mac do that many times in practice."
As Andy Reid said after the game, McManus, who played with Reid’s son at Temple has “plenty of leg to make that,” and he does, but this particular attempt, which was five yards longer than his career long, wasn’t close. (This perhaps is the appropriate spot to admit that I thought it was worth giving McManus a shot at it, although it would have made even more sense had the Broncos made sure to pick up a few yards on second or third down.)
What Kubiak had to be thinking in the moment was that he didn’t want to settle for a tie at home, when a his team still has to travel to Kansas City on Christmas Eve, and that he still had one of the league’s best defenses to lean on should the kick miss.
That defense, though, faltered late after dominating for much of the night. The Broncos grabbed a 17–16 lead in the fourth quarter via a pair of long Trevor Siemian-to-Emmanuel Sanders connections, then stretched the advantage to 24–16 when Siemian floated a deep ball to Bennie Fowler for a 76-yard TD.
At that point, the Chiefs still were shy of 150 yards of offense for the game. They had produced one lengthy touchdown drive, but their other points had come via a safety and subsequent 86-yard kick return by Tyreek Hill.
Yet, when Kansas City needed eight points to force overtime, it marched right down the field in the game’s final three minutes. The biggest play, prior to Hill’s game-tying touchdown (which required a whistle with 0:01 on the clock to review the call, after Hill had been spotted short initially), came when Smith spotted a fourth-and-10 blitz coming at the Denver 14 and found Hill near the sideline for a first down.
Hill’s touchdown grab on the next play pulled the Chiefs within two. Smith then connected with Demetrius Harris for the two-pointer to tie it at 24.
The Broncos’ defense had another chance to end things in overtime, prior to the last-second drama. Denver received the kickoff to open the extra session and hung a field goal on the board. The Chiefs promptly drove into field-goal range themselves, and Santos tied the game again with a 37-yarder.
“Exciting game,” Reid said. “Both teams are good teams. It shows you the strength of the AFC West and what it’s all about. ... Great game to watch, I’m sure. Puts a couple extra gray hairs on your head, but I enjoyed every minute of it.”
In truth, it was odd what occurred in the second half and overtime, as the offenses gradually took control of the game. The first half was an old-school slobberknocker—Kansas City OLB Justin Houston, in his second game back from injury, dominated the Broncos’ offense so badly that he forced a change at right tackle from Ty Sambrailo to Donald Stephenson; Denver OLB Von Miller answered in turn by living in Smith’s pocket.
When Houston forced that safety, leading to Hill’s first of three TDs, the Chiefs’ 9–0 lead felt insurmountable. And it was the same sensation when Denver opened up its 24–16 cushion in the closing moments: Where would the points come from? How would a trailing offense possibly score?
But Siemian, on perhaps his best night as a pro (368 yards, three touchdowns), brought Denver back to grab control of the game. Smith responded by rallying the Chiefs when they were nearly buried.
All of it led to Kubiak’s ill-fated decision in OT, one that could haunt him into January if the defending champs fall short of the postseason. The Broncos are outside the AFC’s top six, as it stands, with a ton of work to do if they hope to capture the West division crown again.
"It's on me," Kubiak added. "I just gave him a chance, thought we could do it, but we didn't get it done. Give them credit."
Kubiak probably could have had a tie Sunday night, but instead rolled the dice looking for a win. And the Chiefs made him pay.