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Chiefs-Broncos rapid reaction: ‘Cardiac’ Chiefs return, escape Denver with key win

The 28-24 win was not the confidence-instilling blowout effort some thought it might be. Where does that leave Kansas City heading into the postseason?

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the Kansas City Chiefs’ final regular-season game, the sentiment among fans was that a clean, complete win over the Denver Broncos would ease any worries about the team heading into the postseason.

As it played out, Saturday’s win could only be described as anything but clean. First, the Chiefs began their effort shorthanded. Early in the game, it was announced that wide receiver Tyreek Hill had suffered a heel injury that would limit him throughout the afternoon. It appeared that with that news, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid opted to only bring him into situations in which the play was made for Hill — such as the key third-quarter, fourth-down conversion to keep a field goal drive alive. Obviously fighting through a good deal of pain, Hill ran the Chad Henne out route to keep Kansas City in the game.

With Hill mostly a non-factor, the Broncos defense neutralized Travis Kelce and anything deep, meaning the Chiefs would have to rely on their short-field targets — wide receiver Mecole Hardman and running back Jerick McKinnon — to go and win the game.

These two Chiefs — who are not relied upon often — played like absolute stars, combining for 153 yards from scrimmage. Hardman recorded his first 100-yard game, and McKinnon had no business scoring his touchdown as Broncos swarmed, yet he found a way to get in the end zone. Darrel Williams didn’t enter the game after the half due to a toe injury, so running back Derrick Gore was also in the mix.

Despite those efforts by Hardman and McKinnon, I find it’s important not to forget what almost happened Saturday: the Chiefs would have lost this game without the late-game heroics of defensive end Melvin Ingram. When the Broncos needed it most, quarterback Drew Lock was in the midst of orchestrating a beautiful fourth-quarter, potentially lead-extending drive (that would have put the Chiefs down by at least eight points), when Lock handed the ball off to running back Melvin Gordon.

Ingram — who had seemed to be working to find his footing all day — had no problem on this particular play. He grabbed Gordon in the backfield and knocked the ball out of his hands. The rookie linebacker out of Mizzou — Nick Bolton — scooped up the fumble and evaded a possible tackle by the former Mizzou quarterback, Lock, running it 86 yards for the longest scoop-and-score of the NFL season.

The play was timely, exceptional and improbable, providing us a microcosm of what the Chiefs’ season has been: not really all that pretty. But at the end of the day, key personnel moves (in this case, the drafting of Bolton and the trade for Ingram) led the Chiefs to a very ugly victory as part of an opportunity to clinch a very ugly No. 1 AFC seed — should the Houston Texans defeat the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.

Reality dictates that the Chiefs really don’t care if their win or seed is ugly. All that matters to them is the result. But the scary (and very obvious) conclusion coming out of Saturday’s game is that the Chiefs have no more non-playoff teams to beat up — and no more room for slow offensive starts, special teams penalties or miscues in the secondary.

I can describe this seed and season as ugly — and I can do the same when it comes to this win. And I would be right. Just the same... Reid will rightly preach that wins, regardless of appearance, are too hard to come by to not appreciate. And he would be right, too.

But I come back to the point... there was no championship level of confidence gained from Saturday’s win. If Kansas City gets back to a third straight Super Bowl, it seems like it will be thanks to this brand of football — these close games.

In late 2020, then-Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger referred to this team as the “cardiac Chiefs” following their 17-14 home win over the Atlanta Falcons. A little more than a year later, many things have changed, but much of that feeling is still the same.

Welcome to the 2021-22 postseason. Your cardiac Chiefs have returned — and they are once again primed to bring you on a wild ride.