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Chiefs-Broncos Instabreakdown: Extreme highs and lows headline close win

After blowing a massive early lead, Kansas City escaped Denver with its 10th victory of the season.

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

Final Score: Kansas City Chiefs 34, Denver Broncos 28

Offense (Bryan Stewart)

Kansas City got the win, but it sure doesn’t feel as good as it did during the second quarter when they led Denver 27-0.

Early on, quarterback Patrick Mahomes made one of his signature dazzling plays. Unfortunately, it might have set the tone for some not-so-wise decisions through the rest of the game.

Mahomes threw for 352 yards, three touchdowns, and 8.4 yards per pass attempt — which sounds incredible. Much of it was incredible — except for three costly mistakes that led to Denver interceptions.

Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce never could seem to get right on track. The all-time great pairing failed to connect on more targets than we care to remember. This didn’t prevent Kelce from eclipsing major receiving yard totals: 1,000 on the season and 10,000 for his career — just the fifth tight end to ever reach the latter number.

Wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster also came up with clutch plays several times, finishing the contest with nine catches, 74 receiving yards and a touchdown. But it was running back Jerrick McKinnon who led the team with 112 receiving yards and two touchdowns. His screen passes — led by great timing and blocks out in space — were very impactful. Running back Isiah Pacheco, continued his strong run of rushing performances with another 70 yards — along with the game-sealing first-down run that mercifully got the Chiefs out of town.

A win over Denver always feels good, but this one certainly left a bad taste behind. Once again, the Kansas City offense had issues with consistency that almost cost them a game — one that effectively should have been over at halftime. Turnovers continue to be a real problem — something the Chiefs must address promptly.

Offensive Player of the Game: Right guard Trey Smith

It isn’t often that the big guys up front get primary recognition — but in this case, Smith (or center Creed Humphrey) certainly should. Smith set the tone physically, helping to spring some of McKinnon’s big gains on screen passes. This continues a hot streak of games for Smith — one that the Chiefs will need to continue as their offensive skill players continue to iron things out.

Defense (Ron Kopp)

The Chiefs had a very volatile performance on Sunday afternoon — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! This unit doesn’t have to play with a bend-but-don’t-break style. Instead, they need to create chaos, make big plays and force turnovers — even if it comes with some negative plays as a consequence.

That was the theme of Week 14, where three of Denver’s third-down conversions on the opening drive were negated with a sack by safety Juan Thornhill. Kansas City used sacks to force punts on two first-half drives — but then allowed touchdowns on two short-field drives before the break.

They even scored a touchdown themselves: linebacker Willie Gay Jr. made an excellent play defending the bootleg on a fourth-down play-action pass. He tipped and secured an attempted dump-off pass over his head — and then returned it 47 yards for a touchdown. Gay broke a tackle attempt by quarterback Russell Wilson on his way to what seemed like a game-breaking score.

But the lows of the defensive performance may have been as low as the highs were high. The Chiefs forced four three-and-outs, but also surrendered plays such as a 66-yard touchdown on a running-back screen. That was a well-timed offensive call to beat an overload blitz, but there were also failed attempts at open-field tackles that were too reminiscent of the unit’s play against the Cincinnati Bengals.

That screen play was also another example of linebacker Nick Bolton failing to engage blocks with enough physicality to shed them; just one block erased him from the running back’s path. While it isn’t an easy play to make, an attacking mindset can disrupt the ball carrier’s path and help teammates in their pursuit.

Denver continued to work the screen game in the second half, but the Chiefs were better prepared for it. Gay and Danna blew up a second-down screen on the drive following the touchdown — and then on the following possession, defensive end Frank Clark took advantage of a covered-up screen to get a sack.

The pass rush racked up six sacks — along with three other hits on the quarterback. Although the pressure wasn’t consistent, it was impactful when it needed to be — including a third-and-goal play in the fourth quarter. Clark came around the quarterback’s blind side, disrupting his release enough to force an incompletion.

Defensive end Mike Danna had an impressively quick win on his pass-rush move against the left tackle for his sack. Rookie George Karlaftis earned a sack by hustling through an elongated dropback — and also earning a pass defended. Even the newly-acquired defensive tackle Brandon Williams got in on pressure, earning a quarterback hit; he also would have been in a good spot to clean up on safety Juan Thornhill’s sack.

Yet that positive play by the pass rush was followed by the secondary getting beat. Jerry Jeudy found space at the back of the end zone past cornerback Jaylen Watson. It wasn’t the only time the rookie cornerbacks were beaten: Jeudy also got past Joshua Williams on a fade route for a touchdown. At one point, Trent McDuffie was called for pass interference on a deep fourth-down pass.

In short, there was way more volatility than we should have to expect. You want the positive results of that volatility — but the lows nearly doomed Kansas City against a historically low-scoring offense.

Defensive Player of the Game: Defensive tackle Chris Jones

What else is new? While Gay’s pick-six ultimately became the difference in the game, Jones made multiple game-changing plays. His only sack of the game ended a drive early — and then in the fourth quarter, he hit Brett Rypien as he threw to force L’Jarius Sneed’s game-ending interception. With two assisted tackles that led to carries a yard or less, Jones was once again the Chiefs’ most impactful defender.

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