In arguably the most important game to date this NFL season, the Denver Broncos took control of the AFC West with an impressive 27-17 home win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday night.
A highly scrutinized ankle sprain and elite Chiefs defense weren't enough to slow down Peyton Manning, who completed 24 of 40 throws for 323 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. It may not have been his most productive game of the season, but it was enough to push the Broncos to 9-1.
While the Chiefs managed 344 total yards of offense (to Denver's 427), an inability to convert third downs (4-of-13) and red-zone opportunities (2-of-4) was eventually their downfall.
Now 9-1, Kansas City's loss means there are no more undefeated teams in the NFL—which probably means some Mercury Morris television appearances this week.
Denver opened up the scoring with a 54-yard Matt Prater field goal. Then, after some exchanged punts and lost fumbles from both sides, Manning connected with Demaryius Thomas for 70 yards down the sideline. That led to Julius Thomas' nine-yard score at the 3:03 mark of the first to put the Broncos up by 10:
Alex Smith and the Chiefs responded in methodical fashion. With the help of a silly taunting penalty by safety Duke Ihenacho, Kansas City went 80 yards on 11 plays, eventually getting in the end zone on a six-yard Dwayne Bowe catch in the beginning of the second quarter.
Bowe has been fairly quiet this season, but he was involved often on Sunday. Though he was only able to pull in four of the 14 intended targets, Bowe did finish with a team-high 57 yards and the score.
Up until late in the fourth quarter, however, the Chiefs were only able to add a field goal a few minutes before the half after a goal-line stand from the Broncos, with several drives flaming out on Denver's side of the field.
After the game, coach Andy Reid talked about the offensive woes (via Associated Press): "We didn't do a good enough job offensively. That's my responsibility. We're a young football team. We'll get it worked out and fixed and get better next week."
And that bend-but-don't-break defense was all the Broncos offense needed. With Manning picking apart a tired Kansas City defense and Knowshon Moreno (27 carries, 79 yards) grinding away, Montee Ball shined.
Shaking off an early fumbled handoff, the rookie had his most productive game of the season, tallying two rushing scores:
As if Denver needs any more weapons on the offensive side of the ball, it looks as though Ball will be a factor in this offense down the stretch.
The Chiefs were able to add a late touchdown when Smith found Anthony Fasano in the back of the end zone at the 4:56 mark of the fourth, but Denver got a couple of late stops to close out the big division win.
Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos: A-
It wasn't the most efficient performance of Manning's season, but that really just says more about his season than his performance on Sunday, as he completed 60 percent of his passes for 8.1 yards per attempt.
There were a few questionable throws and underwhelming drives here or there, but more often than not, Manning carved up a very good defense and moved the ball with relative ease.
Give major credit to his offensive line, which held the best pass-rushing team in the league to zero sacks and zero quarterback hits, allowing Manning to turn in a typically surgical outing.
As for his ankle? Manning was rather brief in the postgame press conference (via AP): "Not doing the weekly checkups and updates."
Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs: B
The 46.7 completion percentage and 5.1 yards per attempt don't exactly tell the entire story, as Smith played better than those numbers suggest.
When it comes down to it, the 29-year-old signal-caller just didn't have a ton to work with. His receivers weren't always getting open, and when they did, Smith was already facing much pressure in the pocket.
Nevertheless, he made accurate throws when he needed to, protected the ball, and used his legs to get out of the pocket and extend plays. He finished with 230 passing yards, 52 rushing yards and two passing TDs.
Shaun Phillips, Denver Broncos: A
With Von Miller held quiet—and on the sideline at times with an injury—Shaun Phillips stepped up in a big way in the pass rush.
The veteran defensive end made a living in the backfield. Not only did he finish with 10 total tackles (seven solo), but he tallied 1.5 sacks, another two tackles for a loss, two pass deflections and two quarterback hits.
Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe also did a good job of getting penetration, but Phillips was crucial in making Smith uncomfortable for much of the night.
The Broncos don't have much time to celebrate, as they have to travel to New England to take on the Patriots in an important conference (and another Sunday Night Football) matchup. Meanwhile, the Chiefs host San Diego next.
The following week, these two teams meet again, this time at Arrowhead.