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How the Chiefs’ last game in Denver changed the course of their Super Bowl season

It was a year ago that Chiefs fans collectively held their breath — and the team turned a corner.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

It was Week 7 of the 2019 NFL season. After rolling off four wins to open their campaign, the Kansas City Chiefs had unexpectedly stumbled in the two previous weeks — falling to the Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans in back-to-back homes game — and hoped to get things back on track in a Thursday Night Football appearance against the Denver Broncos at Mile High.

It wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes just hadn’t seemed like his normal self ever since suffering a high ankle sprain in the season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. In addition, Steve Spagnuolo’s newly-retooled defense had seemed unfocused and soft — especially in the two losses. But on the bright side, the Broncos were coming into the game 2-4 after losing four to open the season.

Still... the Chiefs were going to have to improve in the red zone, as our Ron Kopp Jr. noted before the game.

One weird trend for the 2019 Chiefs offense has been its lack of success in the red zone. They have converted only 52.2% of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns; that percentage is the 20th-best rate in the NFL. In the early portion of the season, this deficiency was masked by big touchdown plays that came from 20-plus yards out — but lately, it has become prevalent that the team settles for too many field goals.

And so it was that with 10:00 remaining in the second quarter — and facing a fourth-and-1 at the Denver 5-yard line — the Chiefs called a quarterback sneak. You may have forgotten that Mahomes got the first down... but you undoubtedly remember this:

There may be nothing worse than watching your team’s $200 million quarterback lying on the ground with a knee injury. (Remember... only later would we learn that Mahomes is really worth $500 million).

“It was out of whack,” recalled tight end Travis Kelce. “I couldn’t even describe it. You looked at it and were like, ‘On no, there is something wrong with him.’ He didn’t seem like he was in too much pain. It is hard to really figure out what was really going on. When we found out it was his knee and he was going out of the game, you just hope a guy isn’t injured that bad and can come back.”

Shortly after Mahomes was helped to the sideline — and then to the locker room, where he had X-rays — we learned he would not be returning to the game after suffering a dislocated kneecap.

And just eight weeks after being the quarterbacks coach at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, California, backup quarterback Matt Moore came into the game.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

“I went in there and I don’t even remember what I said,” said Moore of his first words in the huddle, ”but something to let them know we were going to be all right — and kind of got them fired up a little bit. Just said, ‘Hey, I need you guys, you guys need me. Let’s go here. Help me out, you know, help me.’ That’s kind of what I said.”

But what Moore did was complete 10 of 19 passes for 117 yards — including a beautifully-thrown 57-yard touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill — as the Chiefs went on to win 30-6 and advance to 5-2 on the season.

“I am pretty sure about three or four of the guys out there on the field had never caught a ball from Matt — even in practice,” marveled Kelce. “I know I hadn’t. It was something where we were just going out there and playing within the rules of the offense, trusting the guy to be able to put the ball somewhere.”

But after the Thursday night victory, attention quickly returned to Mahomes. By lunchtime on Friday, there was great news.

Later on Friday, our Kent Swanson had noted that the upcoming schedule was even giving the team some wiggle room.

The Chiefs are for sure going to be without Mahomes for back-to-back home games against Green Bay and Minnesota, followed by a road game against the lowly Tennessee Titans. Then comes their game against the Chargers in Mexico City.

Depending on how the first three weeks go and the outlook of the Chargers, the Chiefs could elect to sit Mahomes out for a fourth game and then get a bye week. Mahomes could sit out until December while still missing only four games.

By Sunday morning, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported that additional tests had confirmed Friday’s encouraging news; the ligaments surrounding Mahomes’ knee had been stretched — rather than torn — meaning that the reigning NFL MVP would not even need to have postseason surgery.

In the end, Mahomes would miss only two games. Moore did a great job in his absence, going 1-1 against the Packers and Vikings. Mahomes returned in fine fettle for the Week 10 game in Tennessee, throwing for 446 yards and three touchdowns in a fluke 35-32 loss.

After that, the Chiefs would go on the longest winning streak in franchise history.

A year later, it’s easier to see the bigger picture.

That quarterback sneak in Week 7 may have scared us to death — as it should have — but it forced Mahomes to sit down long enough for his ankle to heal properly, allowing him to return to his 2018 form. That kind of thing just isn’t in Mahomes’ nature; even after a trainer had just pushed his kneecap back into place as he lay on the field in Denver, he still wanted to get back in the game. While you have to admire that attitude in a team leader, it can also be dangerous.

But the injury also did something else that turned out to be important. In that Week 7 game, our attention was naturally on Moore’s performance. Yet after Mahomes left the game, the Chiefs defense didn’t allow a single Broncos score; they recognized it was finally time for them to step up, too.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

“We just knew we had to go play some good, solid defense,” said Chiefs linebacker Reggie Ragland, who had scooped up a fumble that he returned for a touchdown that night. “To win in this league, you have to play good defense — and that’s what we did. I really feel like tonight was really just the tip of the iceberg for this team. Whatever happened before tonight’s game is done and over with. We just need to keep going forward and keep getting better as a team.”

The defense ultimately required one more wake-up call against the Titans in Week 10 — but after that, they were on fire. In the final seven weeks of the season, no defense was more dominant.

Without that performance, the whole postseason would likely have been dramatically different; it could easily have ended in the Divisional round game against the Texans. It’s natural to notice the star quarterback when a team comes back from a 24-0 deficit to win, but make no mistake: the defense played a huge role in the 51-7 run that sent the Chiefs to the AFC championship — and ultimately led Mahomes to ask offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, “Do we have time to run Wasp?

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