DENVER -- Perhaps when they meet again in two weeks in the cacophony of Kansas City, it will be different. Maybe Alex Smith will be able to squeeze more out of the Chiefs' moribund offense. Maybe K.C.'s defense will be able to use the crowd noise to help get a sack or force a mistake. Maybe it won't be the Denver Broncos' defense -- really -- that makes the two biggest plays of the game.
But when the AFC's best teams faced each other Sunday night, with the AFC West lead (and the inside track on home-field advantage in the playoffs) in the offing, the Broncos and Chiefs played strikingly true to form, and that was bad news for the Chiefs. They entered the game undefeated and disrespected, seeking to make a statement to the NFL that they should not be overlooked. But the only statement they made here came out like a whimper: Their offense isn't explosive enough to stay with the league's best teams, wasting a defense that is more than capable of keeping games close.
That is why the 27-17 final score is deceptive. Had the Chiefs been able to generate any consistent offense -- had they not turned over the ball right after Peyton Manning fumbled in the first quarter with Denver leading by just a field goal; had they not been held on a goal-line stand late in the second quarter from the 2-yard line, settling for a field goal that let the Broncos maintain a seven point lead -- maybe the outcome would have been different. But the Chiefs are not used to playing from far behind -- they had not trailed by more than seven points until Sunday night -- and that is highly problematic against these Broncos. They get leads. They build on them. They inexorably pull away. If this game featured little of the passing fireworks Manning has detonated on other opponents -- Denver finished well below its season average of 41.2 points per game, and Manning had only one touchdown pass -- it was a testament to the Chiefs' defense, which managed to avoid a blowout despite not sacking Manning and forcing just one turnover.
The game was always in reach, but it never felt that way, not from the minute the Broncos reestablished a 10-point lead early in the second quarter. The Broncos were determined not to let their attack get out of balance, so they ran 36 times -- eight more than their season average -- and threw 40 passes. The plan protected Manning and his fragile, heavily taped ankle, keeping at bay the Chiefs' pass rush, which led the league in sacks entering the game.
"I can't speak for the Chiefs' defense, but we felt balanced in trying to keep them from emphasizing just on one thing, being able to tee off in the pass rush," Manning said.
But it also meant the Broncos could never get their lead to balloon. The Broncos aimed to score on the last drive of the first half and the first drive of the second half, but they did neither. The Chiefs had not allowed more than 17 points to any opponent this season, and when the Broncos got to that number with more than nine minutes to play in the second quarter, the blowout could have been on. It wasn't, though, and that might be the balm to soothe the Chiefs this week. They now know that they are able to limit the Broncos, who were held to their fewest points of the season.
Still, when the Chiefs look at the big picture, it will not be overly hopeful. They have rebounded remarkably from a two-win season and might very well win the AFC West in the end. But it is hard to imagine them making much of a playoff dent because they are not built to play from behind, making any deficit feel insurmountable.
Alex Smith plays careful, conservative football -- he did not have a turnover and has thrown just four interceptions this season. When the defense is dominant, that is good enough. But passing for 230 yards, as Smith did Sunday night, is not enough once his team falls behind by two scores. When the Broncos finally broke the logjam later in the third quarter, the game effectively was over. The Chiefs have only two options to cure that ill in two weeks: Figure out a way to score more points and go downfield more often, a change in offensive identify that seems unlikely this late in the season; or hold off Manning even more, theoretically with the help of Arrowhead Stadium's booming crowd noise, which might make it hard for him to communicate with his offensive line and receivers.
Denver's defense can take some of the credit for what happened Sunday night. It sacked Smith three times. It had a goal-line stand. Interim head coach Jack Del Rio was disappointed with the penalties that plagued the Broncos -- they had 13, including one for taunting -- but he could not have been disappointed that their lead was never seriously threatened in the second half.
"It was a gritty performance, it was a tough performance," Del Rio said. "In the end, they had a shot to go down and do something and we didn't allow them to get anything done there."
But really, the Chiefs' offensive ineptitude has been a season-long issue, obscured by a remarkable run of good fortune, which included defensive touchdowns in bunches and a string of playing against five quarterbacks who were backups at some point this season. The harbinger of this game came two weeks ago, when the Chiefs beat the Buffalo Bills, and a backup quarterback, without scoring an offensive touchdown. They got neither of those breaks Sunday night and confirmed a fundamental truth about football in the current age: Defense no longer regularly defeats offense.
If this was a potential statement game for the Chiefs, it said something too about the Broncos, who now, at 9-1, have the lead in the AFC West. This was the kind of game nobody was quite sure they could win, when Manning would not be throwing as he usually does, when the offense would not be able to score so much that it would obscure issues in other parts of the team. Now they have won it, as they head to New England for what likely will be a more routine shootout against a depleted Patriots defense before they face the Chiefs again.
Two more statements will be made that day in Kansas City. Whether they are much different from Sunday night's might depend on just how loudly Arrowhead Stadium speaks up.