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How the Chiefs and Broncos flipped franchise destinies in 2015

When Denver became Kansas City — and Kansas City became Denver.

Kansa City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images

When the Kansas City Chiefs play the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football, they’ll be looking for their 12th straight win against their longtime division rival. The last time the Broncos won? September 17, 2015, on Thursday Night Football in Arrowhead Stadium.

Somehow, this feels like an eternity ago.

Two U.S. Presidents have gone by. The Star Wars sequel trilogy hadn’t yet been released. The rapper Silento was teaching people how to do the “Whip and Nae Nae.” The Royals were in the middle of their championship run.

But even then, Andy Reid was Kansas City’s head coach — his third season running the team. And in those two previous years, he was 0-4 against the Broncos.

That Thursday night, the Chiefs leaned on running back Jamaal Charles, who rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. But Charles also had two costly fumbles — one in the red zone and another with just 35 seconds left in the game. That one was scooped up for a game-winning touchdown, giving Denver a heartbreaking 31-24 victory — Reid’s fifth-straight loss to Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

After that, things got even more interesting for the Chiefs.

Charles — who was coming off three straight Pro Bowl selections and a first-team All-Pro honor — tore his ACL and was lost for the season. The Chiefs dropped the next four games, leaving them at 1-5. It looked like a lost season.

If you have had the opportunity to listen to players talk about that season, they consistently praise Reid’s leadership through a tough time. He talked about ignoring the record, focusing instead on the next activity. Win the next workout. Win the next practice. Win the next film review. Reid said that by sticking to the process, the team would right the ship — and the scoreboard would show the hard work they had put in.

The Chiefs won the next 10 games — including another game against the Broncos in Denver. Manning was benched after completing only five passes for 35 yards (and four interceptions) in 20 first-half attempts. The Chiefs handed the Broncos their most embarrassing loss of the season from start to finish: a 29-13 thumping.

That steady leadership showed up in the playoffs as well. The Chiefs were the Wild Card team no one wanted to play — and the Houston Texans had no choice. Kansas City went on the road to defeat them 30-0 in its first playoff victory since 1993.

The Chiefs lost to the New England Patriots in the Divisional round — but since then, they’ve never looked back. They’ve made the playoffs every year since, winning five consecutive AFC West titles, two AFC championships and a Super Bowl. Reid’s leadership — and consistency from the front office to the quarterback play — has made the team a model NFL franchise.

But for Denver, 2015 was a wild roller-coaster year. The team had started 7-0 before losing back-to-back games — the latter being the loss to the Chiefs. After that, Brock Osweiler started at quarterback until Manning returned for Week 17 and the postseason. But Manning was never the same; his final season ended up being the worst of his career. Still, leaning on their defense, Denver reached — and won — Super Bowl 50.

But that was it. Since then, the Broncos have had three different head coaches, 12 starting quarterbacks and zero playoff appearances. Many believe that 2022 will see another change at head coach and quarterback, whether it’s a veteran or a rookie draft pick.

Sunday night’s game will have the highest stakes of any Chiefs-Broncos game since that 2015 season. With a Chiefs win, they’ll maintain their lead on the AFC West — and still be in contention for the AFC’s coveted first seed. But if the Broncos can pull out an upset, they’ll take the division lead from Kansas City — regardless of what the Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders do on Sunday.

For the Chiefs, it will be just the first of many strong tests they will face in the remaining weeks of the season. But after a disappointing start, Reid has the team on the right trajectory. They are once again the hunted — the team every other team wants to beat.

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