KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In a tie game, with 35 seconds left against a bitter division rival, the aggressive call would have been for the Kansas City Chiefs to take a couple shots and try to kick a long game-winning field goal. The safe call would have been to take a knee and take a chance at overtime.
Head coach Andy Reid instead opted for disaster.
Rarely is a handoff to Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs’ star do-everything running back, the wrong call. But when Charles was wrapped up by Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall, who punched the ball out of Charles’ right arm with such force that Marshall dislocated his right index finger, the Chiefs fumbled away the game and their best chance to beat the Broncos in years. Denver cornerback Bradley Roby scooped up the ball and raced with it to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown to cap a frenetic fourth quarter and seal Denver’s 31-24 win.
“I should have just been smarter and put two hands on the ball. I caused us the loss today,” Charles said. “I tried to put the team on my back and I ended up losing the game. It’s all on me tonight.”
The play call was baffling to nearly every Bronco — from quarterback Peyton Manning who was sitting on the sideline reviewing pictures of the Chiefs’ red zone defense to prepare to face it in overtime, to defensive players in the huddle who were split on what call they thought the Chiefs would make. Marshall and Chris Harris both thought the Chiefs would opt for a couple quick passes. Roby thought the Chiefs would take a knee.
No one thought it would be a run. But the Chiefs thought Charles was the player who could turn a routine running play into something special.
“He is obviously a very gifted guy and can run, you know, turn big plays out of not much. I think that was the thought there — potentially run something up the sideline there,” quarterback Alex Smith said. “You know, he rips off a chunk and suddenly, you do have a shot at a field goal. So obviously you knew you were taking that chance there.”
Instead, the Chiefs are dealing with a gut-punch loss, one that stunned and silenced what had been a raucous sold-out crowd, and left players wondering just how the game unraveled in the final minutes.
The Chiefs led twice in the second half, at 17-14 in the third quarter, and 24-17 with just over two minutes to play following an impressive six-play, 61-yard drive that ended with an eight-yard touchdown run by backup running back Knile Davis.
“We had them right where we needed to,” Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters said.
All the Chiefs needed was another defensive stop, another sack or another turnover — the things the Chiefs defense had done so well earlier in the game as Manning and the Broncos new offensive line struggled against Kansas City’s pass rush. Manning was sacked three times (bringing his season total to seven), and threw his second pick-six of the season in the first half. This wasn’t the same version of Manning the Chiefs were used to facing over the past three years.
Yet somehow Manning put together his best drive of the season — 80 yards in 10 plays, with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders — to set up the Chiefs’ final, baffling offensive possession. That final drive was vintage Manning — hitting chunk plays, exploiting the Chiefs’ single-high safety defense and quickly moving the Broncos down the field. Of his 256 total passing yards, 75 of them came on that final, frenetic drive.
“I’ve been in a couple of crazy games, but never one quite like that,” Manning said.
The Chiefs now have a long weekend to think about all the ways this game went wrong, from a blown red zone opportunity early in the first quarter, when Charles fumbled a third-down screen pass and the Chiefs were shut out of points, to nine penalties and five turnovers. But what stings most is knowing that this was their chance to flip the balance of power in the AFC West away from the Broncos, who have won the last four division titles.
The Chiefs have now lost seven consecutive games to Denver, the last win coming in 2011 against Tim Tebow. Manning improved his career record to 14-1 against Kansas City.
“This was it. This was it,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports, shaking his head. “We have to get them next time.”
That chance won’t come until December, back in Denver. Who knows what Manning and the Broncos offense will look like then, or how the AFC playoff race will be unfolding.
For now, the Chiefs just know it hurts.
“I didn’t give us any chance, and that’s the hardest feeling right there,” Charles said.
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
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