DENVER -- In the days leading up to the Broncos' biggest game of the season, confidence swelled. The hollers at practice were a little louder. The training room was emptier. Denver was poised to shove its past into a dumpster.
Just as the Broncos appeared to walk out of the darkness of three straight losing seasons and into the light, the door slammed shut on their fingers again. On the third coldest home game in franchise history, a bitter 14 degrees, the Broncos hardened hearts with an uninspiring performance in an ugly 43-16 loss to the Chiefs at snow-coated Empower Field at Mile High.
"You just want it so bad sometimes," Broncos quarterback Drew Lock said. "It's frustrating. I have to play better."
Sunday provided a reminder that is impossible to beat good teams without playing complementary football.
The stats made no sense for a long stretch.
Kansas City star quarterback Patrick Mahomes played one minute in the second quarter. The Chiefs nitromethane fueled attack had one first down over a 20-minute span. The Chiefs failed to convert on a single third down. And yet the gap between the Broncos and Chiefs remained a chasm.
Misery intersected with history. The Chiefs became the first team since 2003 to score an offensive, defensive and special teams touchdown in the first half. There is no shame in allowing the Chiefs to score with Mahomes. But the issues in the other phases sabotaged the Broncos, turning a measuring stick game into an absolute clubbing over the head.
"We are a young team," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We have a lot of growing that we’ve got to do.”
Lock played his worst game as a starter. He looked out of rhythm, out of sorts, and out of his league in embracing the Darth Vader persona this week. With the outcome still in doubt in the first half, Lock drifted in the pocket, threw off balance an off target as Daniel Sorenson undercut the pass intended for Noah Fant and raced 50 yards for the score. It was a forgettable moment in an awful day for Lock. He wanted the role of villain, but was not a bad guy. He was just bad.
Lock finished 24 of 40 for 254 yards and two interceptions.
"I have to be a man and go about my business," said Lock, admitting he's pressing.
It remains impossible to upset the Chiefs with poor quarterback play. And it's impossible to avoid shame when struggling on special teams. Trailing 17-9, the latest gaffe arrived. The Broncos did the impossible -- let the Chiefs take command without Mahomes on the field. Byron Pringle took the kickoff and bolted 102 yards, cutting through the snow like a sleigh. Shelby Harris and Joe Jones exchanged words during the extra point, separated by teammates as the Chiefs lead bulged to 24-9.
As bad as Lock was, Melvin Gordon rivaled him. He suffered two fumbles, including one on a botched flea-flicker toss back to Lock. Harris saw his frustrations boil over again as he confronted Gordon following his second mistake. Harris and Fangio had an issue at the end of the game after a Harris penalty for berating a referee, another stain that left a mark.
"The reality is that families fight," Simmons said. "There's going to be no divide on the team. We just have to be better. Point. Blank. It's simple. No talking about injuries. Or COVID. We have to find ways to fight through adversity, and that's the job of the leaders on this team."
The Broncos defense, frankly, deserved a better fate.
The Chiefs do not require a ring to convince people they are the defending champs. They let their first drive serve as a reminder to Broncos Country. It was too easy. Operating like that were suited for the snow than reindeer, the Chiefs slid 68 yards in 4:02 seconds. The drive included a reverse and one-handed catch by Mecole Hardman, and a bumper car 11-yard score by Clyde Edwards-Helaire as he bounced off Kareem Jackson, Michael Ojemudia and Alexander Johnson.
It was made worse by the Broncos winning the toss, taking the ball and going three-and-out with a penalty sandwiched in between.
With the crowd turning into otterpops, the Broncos thawed them, if briefly, with a big defensive play. Alexander Johnson punched out the ball from tight end Nick Keizer and Bryce Callahan recovered. Suddenly, the Broncos regrouped, regained traction. Lock hit Tim Patrick for a chunk play covering 27 yards. A 5-yard connection between the two set up Lock for a trick. Using the RPO, he faked the dive and trotted into the end zone, accompanied by a finger wag, wiggle dance and volleyball spike.
The warm-and-fuzzy feelings fell victim to the cold again as Gordon continued doing his best to turn Broncos Country against him. In his first appearance since a DUI arrest and illness that caused him to miss the Jets game, Gordon returned and fizzled late in the second quarter. On a 16-yard dump down reception to Gordon, Chiefs Tershawn Wharton clubbed out the ball, leading to Gordon's second fumble in four games. His miscue against the Titans led to a loss. This just helped the spiral.
Phillip Lindsay provided a spark and hope, raising the question of why the Broncos did not run more often. He finished the half with 79 yards on seven carries, including runs of 19 and 20 yards, but entered the concussion protocol in the second quarter after Sorensen smashed him with a helmet-to-helmet hit.
The Broncos left this game still in position to climb back into contention with wins over the Chargers and Falcons. But the sobering reality remains: they need a telescope to see the Chiefs.
"We find ways in a lot of the games, where we have self-inflicted wounds," Simmons said. "We can't let one game define our season."
Phillip Lindsay led the Broncos in rushing with 79 yards on nine carries, but only played two quarters after entering the concussion protocol. ...
Mike Purcell was ruled out with a foot issue, Shelby Harris hurt his wrist, and Tim Patrick injured his hamstring. ...
Left guard Dalton Risner avoided missing the first game of his career, making his 22nd consecutive start despite battling a shoulder injury. "I love this team and organization. I will do anything for them," Risner said Sunday. ...
The Broncos inactives featured no surprises given the return of cornerback A.J. Bouye, defensive ends DeMarcus Walker and Dre'Mont Jones and K.J. Hamler. Those scratched: outside linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu (quadriceps), Jeff Driskel, McTelvin Agim, Andrew Beck (hamstring), Jake Butt (hamstring), Diontae Spencer (shoulder) and Netane Muti. ...
Patrick Mahomes owns a 30-8 record, tying Dan Marino and Kurt Warner for fastest to 30 wins in NFL history. ...
Tyrie Cleveland took Spencer's place on kick returns and Bryce Callahan and K.J. Hamler shared punt return duties.