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Just So Close. Broncos show fight, but can't overcome Chiefs

Under interim coach Rosburg, Broncos show discipline, but drop 15th straight to K.C.
Broncos Chiefs Football
Posted at 2:06 PM, Jan 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-02 13:33:32-05

ENGLEWOOD — Russell Wilson walked onto the field, heard a sound and turned back.

Was it the voice of self-reflection? A reminder to block out the noise? Nope, it was a Chiefs fan — yes a Chiefs fan — who desperately wanted his autograph. It was the first hint that a 53-degree Sunday might be different.

Under interim coach Jerry Rosburg, the Broncos looked comfortable and disciplined in a hostile environment. They played arguably their best game of the season, but were unable to finish, suffering an agonizing 27-24 loss at Geha Field.

"I am heartbroken for these guys," Rosburg said. "They deserved a win, and I am heartbroken for our Denver fans because this streak thing that I keep getting asked about that I think of as fantasy has got to stop."

It marked the Broncos' 15th straight loss to the Chiefs. Denver has not won here since September 2015 when Peyton Manning refused to go gently into that good night. This time, the Broncos showed admirable fight in their spoiler role, but could not overcome a horrible interference call against Courtland Sutton and a fourth quarter interception by Wilson, which stained an otherwise solid performance.

"I can't wait for the dark side to turn into light and that's going to be an amazing story for this organization," said Wilson, who finished 26 for 38 for 222 yards and two rushing touchdowns. "And I am looking forward to that. And we are going to do it."

Denver's last hope vanished on fourth-and-2 from their own 45-yard line with under 1:30 remaining. Wilson was pressured and threw a harmless incompletion as he was body slammed by Chris Jones that was not penalized. The count was on two, and center Graham Glasgow snapped the ball on one into Wilson's chest. There was no recovering from the lost timing, though Wilson thought Jones was offsides.

Being close means nothing in the NFL, but how the Broncos performed under Rosburg suggests this team has more potential than revealed over the past four months.

"Last week that wasn't us. We corrected some stuff. We play hard, you know what I mean?" defensive lineman DeShawn Williams said. "I know the history, and when you think of the Denver Broncos you think of winning. And since 2015 it hasn't been that. I don't want to say laughingstock of the league. But we don't put fear in people like this team used to. And we need to find a way to get back to that. I just want to say I appreciate the fans. They give us so much love and we are not much deserving of it, but we appreciate it."

The Broncos began the fourth quarter with a 17-13 lead, something unthinkable given their record and Christmas Day performance. Teams receive bumps from coaching changes, but it seemed unlikely for Denver after a chaotic week that featured multiple firings.

The possibility of the Broncos' biggest upset in decades began flickering when Wilson lobbed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Albert Okwuegbunam — he rebounded after two drops — to give Denver a 17-13 advantage with 6:35 remaining in the third.

Comfort turned to chaos quickly.

The Broncos spiraled after the brutal call on Sutton. Instead of having the ball on the Chiefs' 40 with a four-point cushion, a sprinkle away from field goal range, the Broncos punted. The penalty became the equivalent of a boot to the shins.

"I thought it was PI and it turned into OPI. Interesting," said the diplomatic Sutton.

Added Jerry Jeudy, "Everybody knows that wasn't interference. I mean how you get a pass interference with two guys on you?"

Most other comments regarding the call were not suited for a family website.

Kansas City responded with a six play, 65-yard scoring drive, coach Andy Reid forcing the Denver defense to make painful decisions in space. Patrick Mahomes was not sharp, but still eclipsed 5,000 yards for the season and played his best when it mattered most. He connected with tight end Blake Bell on a 17-yard score, and Wilson followed with an ugly interception on the next play.

Just like that hope became a stranger. The Chiefs capitalized with Mahomes finding the recipe's secret sauce Jerick McKinnon. He scooted into the end zone on a short pass for his eighth touchdown in his past five games.

Kansas City led 27-17 with 12:35 remaining, a score accurately reflecting the script reversal initiated by the call on Sutton.

When he hung out with the "1600 SAT crowd" as part of his operations management duty, Rosburg prepped for games by walking the perimeter of the field. Sunday, he was a ghost, nowhere to be seen until closer to kickoff. He exited the visiting tunnel, waved to a few Broncos fans and smiled broadly.

Unlike Vance Joseph in 2017, Rosburg really was having the time of his life. He put his stamp on the team in six days, firing two coaches — special team coordinator Dwayne Stukes and offensive line boss Butch Barry — jumping knee deep into the special teams with dramatically improved fundamentals and delivering daily sermons disguised as press conferences.

"He is definitely old-school, and I am kind of used to it," strong safety Kareem Jackson said.

With improved discipline and a methodical approach, the Broncos played their best half of the season given the time, place and opponent. Offensively, the Broncos reverted to heavy personnel, playing the majority of snaps with multiple tight ends and running backs, rather than leaning on three-wide sets. Points remained at a premium, but an Air Force-ish drive proved effective in showing how they could keep the outcome in doubt and play keep away from the Chiefs.

Trailing 6-0, the Broncos mounted a 14-play, 49-yard march, logging 6 minutes, 46 seconds. It resulted in a Brandon McManus 49-yard field goal. What followed next was The Rosburg Effect. Linebacker Alex Singleton, who has a had terrific season, forced a fumble on the kickoff that Eric Saubert recovered. Wilson told the players before the game, "Let's ball out!" Wilson did just that after the turnover, scampering 16 yards untouched on a keeper to give the Broncos a shocking 10-6 lead with 4:40 remaining in the half.

The offense showed promise with Justin Outten making his debut as the play-caller. Fired coach Nathaniel Hackett held the duties for nine games, producing the league's lowest scoring offense, followed by six games for quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak.

The Chiefs, as they are wont to do, responded. They no longer boast Tyreek Hill, but McKinnon has become invaluable. He caught a 28 yard pass, showing wiggle in space, then jogged in for a score on a Mahomes short toss to shove Kansas City ahead 13-10. The Broncos kept it there when rookie Eyioma Uwazurike blocked a field goal — Rosburg's influence, perhaps? — at the second quarter buzzer.

That the outcome teetered traced back to Justin Simmons' latest big moment. With Kansas City owning a 6-3 lead earlier in the red zone, the Pro Bowl alternate raced to the corner of the end zone and made a sprawling grab for an interception. It was his sixth pick, setting a single-season career-high and representing the most by a Bronco since Hall of Famer Champ Bailey in 2006.

Denver made plays, and made it interesting. But the fireworks above the scoreboard afterward provided another reminder of a sobering loss.

"There are no moral victories," Wilson said. "We want wins."

Interim coach Jerry Rosburg promised changes on special teams. Rookie Montrell Washington, who has battled inconsistency and fundamental breakdowns, was made inactive. Kendall Hinton returned punts. Marlon Mack opened as the kick returner and hurt his hamstring on the opening kickoff. ...

The Broncos' chances of winning seemed bleak as three inactive players walked over to greet owners Rob Walton, CEO Greg Penner and Carrie Walton-Penner. They were Dre'Mont Jones (hip), D.J. Jones (knee) and Baron Browning (back). They represent three of the Broncos' best defensive players. Nik Bonitto made his first start at outside linebacker in Browning's absence. ...

Justin Simmons intercepted his sixth pass on Sunday, setting a career-high. It's the most by a Bronco since Champ Bailey had 10 in 2006. ...

Wilson has had 17 passes batted down this season, including two in the first half. He had five batted down last season. ...

Rookie Damarri Mathis was diagnosed with a concussion after taking a knee to head from Travis Kelce. ...

Dalton Risner hurt his left elbow and was replaced by Quinn Bailey. Risner left the locker room in a sling.