Here are five things we learned.
1. The bye week might be even more important than we knew
The Chiefs came away with a win on Saturday — but almost everything that transpired between kickoff and the end of the game reminded us of the importance of a first-round bye. A week after miscues on both sides of the ball were partially to blame for the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Chiefs failed to put forth a clean four quarters of football. Kansas City’s offense and defense both had highlights, but neither was able to dominate a depleted Denver team — and inspire confidence heading into the playoffs.
As a result, Kansas City’s starters went the distance on Saturday. They needed four quarters to secure the AFC’s second seed, keep their hopes for the first seed alive and establish some semblance of momentum ahead of the postseason. Given those circumstances, the decision to keep the team’s starters in the game was a no-brainer — but it came at the expense of fresh legs. Heading into Week 18, we knew a first-round bye was a long shot — but we hoped the starters would at least be able to sit out the second half against the Broncos. After a hard-fought win, fatigue has to be a concern.
Denver’s atrocious field conditions — which were bad enough to earn an honorary sixth thing we learned — also raised several injury concerns for the playoffs. During pre-game warm-ups, wide receiver Tyreek Hill suffered a heel injury that hobbled him throughout his limited time in the game. In the second half, running back Darrel Williams was sidelined with a toe injury. Both wideout Byron Pringle and tight end Travis Kelce were observed walking gingerly off the field — though to date, neither has an injury designation.
Ahead of Week 18, we recognized the advantages of a first-round bye. Exiting it, we can articulate them in painstaking detail.
2. The defensive issues against the Bengals weren’t a fluke
To say the least, the performance of the Chiefs’ defense in Week 17 was discouraging. But after weeks of good-to-dominant play, one bad game against a talented offense should not raise too many flags. After another poor performance, however — this one against second-string quarterback Drew Lock — I think there is cause for concern.
For the second consecutive game, poor tackling and miscues in the secondary opened up multiple big-play opportunities for the opposing offense. Given the Broncos’ success while running the ball against the Chiefs in Week 13 — and Lock’s presence under center in this game — Denver’s focus on the ground game was predictable. Yet the Broncos still managed to rattle off 191 yards rushing at 6.8 yards per carry. Running backs Melvin Gordon III and Javonte Williams ran through Kansas City’s arm tackles all afternoon. When the Chiefs missed a run fit in the third quarter, Gordon broke loose for a 47-yard touchdown. Even Lock found success running the football, going for 35 yards and two touchdowns in plays where he scrambled straight ahead untouched.
After the Bengals had diced up the Chiefs’ secondary outside the numbers, the Broncos also made a point to take shots on the perimeter. Jerry Jeudy beat Kansas City’s cornerbacks on multiple occasions — and if Lock hadn’t overthrown him on another play, could have opened up the game with a long touchdown. As the game progressed, Denver started doing damage in the flats — consistently outflanking the Chiefs’ second-level defenders by turning the corners for plus yardage.
In the playoffs, the Chiefs’ defense simply cannot afford to be as undisciplined as it has been the past two weeks. Fortunately, the unit has already proven that it can make improvements in a hurry — but time is no longer on its side.
3. Melvin Ingram turned the game around — and possibly the season
With Kansas City’s defense struggling into the fourth quarter, defensive end Melvin Ingram made a play that summed up its season. Up 21-20, the Broncos were in the midst of a 62-yard drive that had the Chiefs on their heels. Then on second-and-2 from the Kansas City nine-yard line, Ingram shot through the Denver offensive line like a cannon and obliterated Gordon in the backfield. The Broncos running back coughed up the football, which linebacker Nick Bolton picked up and ran 86 yards for a Chiefs touchdown — which was itself a terrific effort.
Before Ingram’s arrival in Week 9, the Chiefs’ defense was near the bottom of the league in every meaningful statistical category — and the eye test did little to dispel any doubts about its performance. But after the Chiefs sent a sixth-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Ingram, the defense rapidly began to turn its season around.
Realistically, Ingram’s addition was one of several factors that led to Kansas City’s defensive improvement— but it was arguably the most important. One thing is certain: in one game, a single play of his orchestrated a defensive turnaround that kept the Chiefs in a favorable position for the playoffs. Despite the team’s recent defensive struggles, it was a reminder of how far the defense has come — and how suddenly it can wreak havoc.
4. The Broncos played like they had nothing to lose — until they didn’t
When you hear that a team is playing like they have nothing to lose, it typically means they are loose, confident and aggressive. Early in Saturday’s matchup, that was true of the Broncos. Despite being eliminated from playoff contention — and playing with a depleted roster — Denver’s players and coaches looked like they were prepared to leave everything on the field.
A reverse-pass by Denver receiver Courtland Sutton on the team’s first touchdown drive was indicative of their attitude. The Broncos may not have had anything left to play for this season, but they were determined not to drop a thirteenth consecutive game to their division rival.
Late in the fourth quarter, however, an unexpected decision by Broncos head coach Vic Fangio sent an entirely different message. Down 28-21, the Broncos had the ball deep in Chiefs’ territory with 4:37 left to play. On fourth-and-9 from the 13-yard line — rather than attempting to tie the game — Fangio elected to kick a 31-yard field goal to bring the Broncos within four points.
In the context of Denver’s approach for most of the game, it was a surprising (if not baffling) decision. Mahomes and the Chiefs drove the ball 66 yards down the field and ran the remaining time off the clock.
Against the Chiefs in Week 13, the Broncos attempted six fourth-down conversions — a few of which were divisive calls. On Saturday — even in one scenario when doing so felt like the obvious decision — they attempted none.
5. Late bloomers shined on offense
With Hill sidelined for much of the game, the Broncos' defense turned its attention to blanketing Kelce over the middle of the field. In this kind of scenario, the Chiefs have typically leaned into the strength of their offensive line to get their running backs going. But with Clyde Edwards-Helaire sidelined for the game — and Williams out the second half — Kansas City needed someone to step up in the face of Denver’s stingy two-high defense.
Mecole Hardman and Jerick McKinnon both rose to the challenge. Hardman caught eight of his 11 targets for 103 yards — the first 100-yard receiving game in his three-year career. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 99 of those receiving yards came after the catch. Hardman also added 10 yards rushing on a direct-snap counter play — an intriguing concept we could see again in the postseason.
Mecole Hardman gained 99 of his 103 receiving yards after the catch (+43 over expected).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 9, 2022
Hardman After the Catch (2021, WR Ranks)
75% of yards (2nd, min. 50 receptions)
8.8 YAC/reception (2nd)
+2.3 YAC over expected/reception (5th)#KCvsDEN | Powered by @awscloud pic.twitter.com/zSXBDQkN6M
After spending four weeks on injured reserve, McKinnon entered Saturday’s game with seven carries for 38 yards on the season. Yet despite his missed time, he looked sharp — taking five carries for 24 yards (4.8 yards per attempt) and catching all three of his targets for 26 yards and a touchdown. McKinnon’s touchdown reception — in which he used his elusiveness and strength to make a handful of Denver defenders miss — was one of the game’s offensive highlights.
In the playoffs, Kansas City’s offense will go with Mahomes, Kelce and Hill. But on Saturday, the performances of Hardman and McKinnon (whose fresh legs could be unexpected assets in the playoffs) proved how explosive the Chiefs can be — even when defenses are preventing Mahomes from pushing the ball to his primary targets. Finding Hardman and McKinnon in space could prove to be an integral part of keeping defenses honest — and creating chunk yards from checkdown passes.