It wasn’t always pretty — and it was more difficult than it should have been — but the Kansas City Chiefs pulled out a 28-24 win against the Denver Broncos on Saturday, making some huge plays when it mattered the most. There were some frustrating flashbacks to early-season defensive struggles — and some penalties that could have been costly. But there were also some tremendous performances from both stars and role players.
Here are a few who stood out as the Chiefs closed out their regular season with a win.
(Author’s note: Applying the labels “winners” and “losers” is not intended to be a judgment on the talent or character of any of these players. It’s just a simple way to grade their performance in a single game. No disrespect is intended.)
Mecole Hardman: With Tyreek Hill ailing, the Chiefs coaching staff — along with Patrick Mahomes — clearly decided that this was going to be a Mecole Hardman game. He was targeted 11 times, responding with eight catches for 103 yards — his first-ever 100-yard receiving game. Throw in his 10-yard rush and it was a very good day for the thrid-year wide receiver, who earned high praise from Mahomes in post-game interviews. If the offense can get anything resembling this performance from Hardman in the postseason — in addition to Hill and Travis Kelce — it will be in business.
Jerick McKinnon: The Chiefs running back room got an unexpected boost with McKinnon’s return from injured reserve. His second-half touchdown reception had everything: a juke, a spin, another juke — and then a lowered shoulder to get into the end zone. From that point forward, he was a big part of the offense — grinding out yards and helping to hold the lead. McKinnon ended up with 50 total yards, which led all the team’s backs. It looks like the Chiefs have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield — and from here on out, they can go with the hot hand.
Nick Bolton and Melvin Ingram: The twins combined for the biggest play of the day. Ingram channeled Jadaveon Clowney at South Carolina, getting into the backfield fast enough to nearly take the handoff, blowing up running back Melvin Gordon and forcing a fumble. Bolton did the rest, scooping up the ball and rumbling 86 yards for a pivotal touchdown. That one play turned the tide on the Broncos, saving the game — and potentially the team’s playoff seeding.
Patrick Mahomes: It’s been said that a running Mahomes is the best Mahomes. When he’s creating with his feet and moving the chains on the ground, it adds another dynamic to his game that makes him impossible to defend. Against the Broncos, Mahomes had the most carries, the longest single rushing play — and other than Hardman’s one 10-yard carry, the highest per-carry average on the team. He also ran for the two-point conversion after the Bolton touchdown that extended the Chiefs lead to seven points. Mahomes also made plays through the air, throwing back across the field and ending up with a pair of touchdowns. But Saturday’s offensive story should be about his ground game.
The Chiefs’ run defense: The Broncos racked up 191 yards — averaging 6.8 yards per attempt — and got two rushing touchdowns from quarterback Drew Lock, who isn’t exactly Lamar Jackson. Whether it was a lack of contain, poor tackling or a lack of discipline and gap responsibility, the Chiefs just didn’t get the job done against the run.
Chris Jones: Jones had some pressures in Denver, but wasn’t able to get home. It was a costly day for him to end up with an empty line on the box score, because he had a $1.25 million incentive riding on getting his tenth sack. But he also had no tackles and no quarterback hits — and given the Broncos’ success in running the ball, the film review might also show some struggles against the run. In the playoffs, the Chiefs will need more from Jones.
Harrison Butker: Butker hit both of his field goals — including a 51-yarder — but most will remember him falling flat on a kickoff as a lowlight from this game. All afternoon, other players also struggled to find their footing — so maybe we should instead be listing Empower Field’s turf as a loser.
Zayne Anderson: If the Chiefs had lost this game, we would have talked a lot about penalties that extended Broncos drives and led to touchdowns. The most egregious was Anderson’s first-quarter roughing-the-punter flag that led to Lock’s first rushing touchdown. Practice-squad players who get called up to the roster want to make an impression — but not one like that.