The Denver Broncos just about followed the blueprint for beating the Kansas City Chiefs to perfection.
They pounded away with Melvin Gordon, who piled up 131 yards on 15 carries while turning a 60-minute game into one that felt like it was 30. They picked up enough first downs to keep Patrick Mahomes and Co. off the field for long stretches, and they held the Chiefs without touchdowns on their first four forays into the red zone.
They were aggressive. They were opportunistic. They were smart.
They still weren't quite good enough in a 22-16 defeat.
“We went in there and played our tails off and we lost, and you go into a game trying to win,” said Broncos defense end Shelby Harris, who played for the first time in a month after his COVID-19 diagnosis. “My biggest thing is really just, we can play with the best of them. When we don't turn the ball over and do all this crazy stuff, we can play with the best of them, so let's keep playing like this. It's something to build on. This is how we should be playing every week.”
It helps when the Broncos have an actual quarterback under center.
Drew Lock was back after missing last week's lopsided loss to New Orleans — along with backup Brett Rypien and the rest of the Denver quarterbacks — when he was deemed a close contact Jeff Driskel, who tested positive for COVID-19. Lock played magnificently most of the night, throwing for 151 yards with a pair of touchdown passes to Tim Patrick.
Lock also threw a pair of interceptions to Tyrann Mathieu, and the second one sealed the outcome. It came after the Broncos (4-8) forced the Chiefs to kick a field goal with just over a minute left, giving them a chance to march downfield for what would have been a winning touchdown. But after a short completion to Jerry Jeudy and two incomplete passes, Lock was forced to unload under pressure deep over the middle and Mathieu was there to pick off the pass.
The result was the Broncos' 11th consecutive loss to the Chiefs, albeit one of the closest during that long streak.
“There's no feel-good losses in this league ever," said Lock, who starred down the road at Missouri. “We did play them closer than we have before, but I mean, what does that get you? Nothing. It gets you a sad flight home, but we'll learn from it and keep getting better and focusing on the little things that keep biting us in the butt.”
There were a couple of decisions in particular that may have ultimately cost them the win.
The first came late in the first half, when Broncos stalled at the Kansas City 38 and coach Vic Fangio sent Brandon McManus out to try a 57-yard field goal. The kicker with the booming leg had plenty of distance but missed wide left, and that gave the Chiefs the ball near midfield with 28 seconds left. Three quick completions by Mahomes set up Harrison Butker's third field goal of the half, and rather than leading 13-6 the lead was trimmed to a single point.
“I mean, Brandon is one of our best weapons. He's had a hell of a season and he's a hell of a kicker,” said Fangio, who admitted thinking about going for it. “We have a chance to get three there. I fully acknowledge, and understood at the time, that if he missed it where they'd get the ball. It didn't work out.”
His later decision to punt rather than go for it— on fourth-and-3 near midfield with 6 minutes left — also didn't work out.
Mahomes completed a pair of passes to Sammy Watkins for first downs, and running back Darrel Williams barreled forward for another one, helping the Chiefs burn clock while moving down field. By the time the Broncos forced Butker to attempt his final field goal, there was just 1:06 left for the Denver offense to try driving for the winning score.
“I gave it strong consideration,” Fangio said of his fourth-down call, “but you know, at some point in the game, we've got o get a stop, and we weren't able to. We held them to a field goal but that made it a touchdown game and burned off some of the time there, so in retrospect, should have probably gone for it.”
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL