KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The news of the week was not for the weak.
Brittany Bowlen admitted she wants to become controlling owner, Demaryius Thomas became a walking trade rumor, Von Miller approved of Halloween, Chad Kelly was arrested and released and Bill Bowlen filed a complaint to have the trust abolished.
"Nah," defensive lineman Domata Peko said, "I am telling you it has not been a distraction to the players in the locker room."
The Broncos started fast like they were in a getaway car. They showed imagination and the guts of a burglar, necessary attributes to steal a road victory.
Turns out the Chiefs were giving the Broncos a headstart, like a cheetah chasing a gazelle. Kansas City scored on five consecutive possessions, securing a nervy 30-23 win, its seventh-straight against the Broncos, who undermined their upset bid with 10 penalties.
"If you lose it doesn't count for (crap). All that matters in this league is wins. It's a production league," said defensive end Derek Wolfe, who wondered aloud why officials aren't held more accountable for "crappy" calls. "At the end of the day you can't blame the refs for losing even though you want to sometimes because it kind of feels like they are out to get you. But you have to play sound football. We have to play better."
Despite an impressive effort, Denver sits at a crossroads. The Broncos have not won an AFC West road game since Peyton Manning retired following the 2015 season. That marks the last time the Broncos reached the playoffs. Any chance of returning demands a win at home this Sunday against Houston. Lose, and the calls for the Broncos to end coach Vance Joseph's employment will reach fever pitch.
"We understand where we are," said Joseph, who is 2-10 on the road as the Broncos coach, and has watched his team collect 56 penalties in eight games this season. "Our division has two five-plus win teams. We have to get back to work. We have to win our next game. That's our focus not the overall record."
The Broncos provided hope -- I know that's not what fans want to hear, though it's true -- before succumbing to a team that looks a lot like Denver did with Manning. Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes produced 303 yards passing with four touchdowns. The Broncos finished with 189 yards rushing, including 95 from rookie Phillip Lindsay in his first start.
Beyond the fascination with gambling, violence and fantasy leagues, the NFL remains, at its core, a matchup league. The Broncos square well against Kansas City, even in a season when few things have gone right.
The Broncos promised they would wear gloves with their helmets Sunday.
"We fought," safety Justin Simmons said. "This could have set us up for the rest of the season."
Eager to change how they are viewed, the Broncos played with toughness and resilience not seen in three years. Such superlatives were required to snap an ugly skid to the AFC West's finest squad.
While a failed jet sweep on third down followed by Brandon McManus' first missed field goal hung over the first half, it did not define the opening 30 minutes. The Broncos took a punch and delivered a jab to Kansas City's jaw.
The Broncos' confidence swelled early as they produced surprising results. They held the Chiefs without a score on their first possession, something no one had accomplished until Sunday. And they responded with a gutsy drive.
"You can't beat the Chiefs without keeping pace," said Lindsay said. "and you can't do it by kicking field goals."
Receiving the bulk of the carries with Royce Freeman out with a sprained ankle, Lindsay ran with his hair on fire. That's quite a blaze. He finished with 55 first-half yards on 10 carries. Lindsay provided a 7-0 cushion with a 1-yard plunge. It established a path to victory that was sabotaged by mistakes.
"We ran the ball well," said Lindsay, who watched Devontae Booker total 78 yards on nine attempts. "It's hard because of the penalties. You don't know what the refs are seeing. There are so many things going on. .. But you respect what they say and you go on."
The Chiefs responded with an early field goal, a recipe for success for Denver. Then leaks sprung. The Broncos faced a third-and-2 at the 31-yard line in the second quarter.
A first down meant a likely field goal, possibly an email to the end zone. Instead the gamble -- needed in this game when the Broncos served as the ugly guys in the brawl -- backfired horribly. The Sanders jet sweep resulted in a loss of six yards. Sanders declined to comment on the play, saying repeatedly, "I am just looking forward to the next game."
McManus entered and missed for the first time this season. He pushed the 55-yarder wide right into a crosswind.
It produced a 10-point swing. The Chiefs required four plays to snatch the lead as Mahomes, who finished 24-for-34 on his passes, connected with Travis Kelce for a 9-yard score. Kelce does things to the Broncos you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
"I'm tired of losing, especially in Kansas City. I really hate Kansas City, really hate it. I don't like coming here. I don't like anything about them except for Travis (Kelce)," Wolfe said of his former college roommate at Cincinnati. "Travis is the only one I like over there."
Kansas City opened a 30-14 lead, leaning on receiver Sammy Watkins for two touchdowns, one of several weapons at Mahomes' disposal. Still, Denver kept the outcome in doubt.
Case Keenum, who played his best game as a Bronco by completing 23 of 34 passes for 262 yards, two touchdowns and a pick, sliced Kansas City's advantage to 16-14 with a long scoring drive in the two-minute drill to end the half. A chunk play connection to Courtland Sutton, who could make Thomas expendable in a trade this week possibly to the Patriots, fueled the march. Thomas acknowledged the speculation about his future affected him.
"Really, it was frustrating. It was frustrating. It bothered me throughout the whole week," said Thomas, who had three catches for 30 yards in potentially his last game as a Bronco. "It’s just tough. It’s just tough to even think about it om midseason about being on another squad and not here.”
Trailing by 16 points, the Broncos refused to take a hint and took a chance. A fourth-and-4 connection to Jeff Heuerman left Denver down 30-20. And believe it or, there were chances to stage the upset. Simmons intercepted Mahomes, setting up a potential rally. The Broncos went nowhere on two runs and a pass.
Another defensive stop produced a sliver of light. The Broncos failed to capitalize as Keenum was picked off. In the end, the Chiefs offense proved impossible to overcome. The Broncos followed a blueprint to win with a physical running game, and play-action passes.
Yet, it wasn't enough. There's no shame in losing to the Chiefs as a 10-point underdog, the biggest road line since Tim Tebow fell to the Patriots in the playoffs.
The summary of the loss was simple: yellow flags and red faces. Every member of the Broncos' offensive line was called for a penalty, save for right tackle Billy Turner, who allowed a pair of sacks.
"The calls happen. They move you back or forward and you keep playing," said center Matt Paradis, a team captain. "We are battling. Guys care. We are working hard. I am still excited about this group and looking forward to the rest of the season."
The problem traces back to the New York Jets' defeat. Had Denver played in New York like they did Sunday, this game wouldn't have left nerves frayed. Now the Broncos return home with their postseason odds flickering, tired of trying to find consolation in the empty calories of moral victories.
"We have to win every game the rest of the way," Simmons said. "It's disappointing to be in this spot. Now they are all Super Bowl games. It really is win or go home at this point."
Linebacker Brandon Marshall (bone bruise in knee) told Denver7 he's likely going to need time to let his leg heal. After doing everything to battle through the pain that begin in the third week of the preseason, Marshall couldn't go anymore Sunday. I asked him how he felt, "Not good to be honest." The diagnosis of a bone bruise hopefully will create a path for recovery. Josey Jewell played in his absence. ... Lindsay's 95 yards rushing were the fourth most by an undrafted rookie in his first start in the past 10 seasons. ... Chris Harris Jr. found himself in the slot. He shut down the inside game, but it's fair to wonder if he could have changed the game with a turnover had he played outside. The Broncos current secondary doesn't allow for that luxury.
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