The AFC West is a heavyweight battle, and the head-to-head games between the contenders will likely serve as the decisive blows.
The Kansas City Chiefs landed one of those blows in dramatic fashion Sunday night with a 30-27 victory over the Denver Broncos in overtime at Sports Authority Field. Cairo Santos hit a 34-yard field goal to win in the extra period but only after it hit the left upright and took a Kansas City bounce through the posts.
Kansas City moved to 8-3 and within one game of the 9-2 Oakland Raiders behind a bit of good fortune, while Denver dropped to 7-4.
The Chiefs benefited from favorable field position on the game-winning drive when Denver coach Gary Kubiak elected to give Brandon McManus a chance to win it with a 62-yard field goal on the prior possession. Had Denver punted, it would have essentially conceded the tie with just more than a minute remaining, but the miss gave Kansas City the ball at Denver's 48-yard line.
According to NFL Research, it would have been a historic tie had it unfolded that way:
Last time there were 3+ ties in a season was in 1973, when there were 7 ties.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) November 28, 2016
Overtime was instituted in 1974.
Each team's defense set the tone early, but the offenses combined for 45 points after halftime following a 12-point first half.
Denver's offense came alive behind quarterback Trevor Siemian, who finished with 368 passing yards and three touchdowns. Emmanuel Sanders was his most reliable target with seven catches for 162 yards and a score, and Devontae Booker added 79 yards on the ground.
Kansas City received 220 passing yards and a touchdown from Alex Smith. The touchdown came in one of the game's biggest moments, when he found Tyreek Hill for a three-yard score with 12 seconds left in regulation. The referees initially ruled Hill down at the 1-yard line, which could have ended the game since Kansas City had no timeouts remaining, but they overturned the call following replay review.
Despite the late offensive bursts, Kansas City's Justin Houston and Denver's Von Miller proved why they are two of the league's most feared defenders, posting 10 total tackles, three sacks and four tackles for loss each. NFL on ESPN noted two pass-rushers haven't dominated the same game at such a level for three years:
Justin Houston & Von Miller are the first pair of opposing players with 3 sacks each in a game since 2013. (Elvis Dumervil and Vincent Rey) pic.twitter.com/HFLDg79fcw— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) November 28, 2016
Kansas City entered Sunday tied for fifth in the league in scoring defense, while Denver wasn't far behind at eighth. The first quarter reflected those statistics, as the teams combined for zero points and five punts while managing just five first downs.
Houston led the way for that Chiefs defense. The four-time Pro Bowler appeared in just one game this season before Sunday because of a knee injury but had three first-half sacks and consistently created penetration up front.
Troy Renck of ABC Denver said "Ty Sambrailo needs to come out" when it was clear the offensive lineman couldn't block Houston, and Kevin Patra of NFL.com shifted the blame from Siemian:
It’s impossible to judge Trevor Siemian behind this dumpster-fire offensive line.— Kevin Patra (@kpatra) November 28, 2016
Houston was directly involved in the first points of the game when he sacked Siemian in the end zone and forced a fumble, which Denver recovered for a safety. Hill returned the ensuing kick for a touchdown, and the Chiefs were suddenly ahead 9-0 after the extra point despite a lack of offense.
The NFL shared Hill's 86-yard return:
Denver finally moved the ball while Houston was temporarily sidelined with what the Chiefs announced as a shoulder injury and got on the board with a McManus field goal.
Kansas City took the 9-3 lead into the halftime locker rooms, but the Broncos defense kept them within striking distance. Miller notched two sacks as Denver held Kansas City to 49 total first-half yards.
The Chiefs went three-and-out on the first possession of the second half, and Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus illustrated just how stingy Denver's pass defense was to that point:
Alex Smith on passes more than 1 yard in the air: 0 for 5 for 0 yards.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) November 28, 2016
Siemian outshined his counterpart on Denver's first drive of the second half when he escaped Houston's pressure with a spin, scrambled across the field and found Jordan Taylor for a six-yard touchdown. It capped a 12-play, 63-yard drive, and Cameron Wolfe of the Denver Post called it one of the best plays of the quarterback's career.
The NFL captured the touchdown:
Kansas City bounced back with a 12-play touchdown drive that Hill finished with a three-yard run. Spencer Ware took the direct snap and ran a zone read on the score, which was only made possible after Denver was called for an illegal formation on the Chiefs' field-goal attempt earlier in the drive.
Denver's special teams made another mistake in the fourth quarter when Jordan Norwood muffed his second punt of the night. Kansas City recovered it, and Joel Klatt of Fox Sports pointed out the struggles were nothing new for the Broncos unit:
The @Broncos Special teams are brutal tonight...have been suspect all year— Joel Klatt (@joelklatt) November 28, 2016
The Broncos defense prevented the mistake from being costly when it forced a three-and-out after another sack from Miller.
Siemian and Sanders took full advantage of the chance the defense gave them, connecting for two deep balls on Denver's next drive. The first went for 64 yards, and the second went for 35 yards and a touchdown, as the NFL passed along:
Andy Glockner of The Cauldron compared the aggressive play-calling to the early offensive issues:
What do you know? Deep balls can be completed.— Person (@AndyGlockner) November 28, 2016
Siemian made another crucial play on Denver's next possession when he found A.J. Derby for a third-down conversion when his offense was pinned at its own 3-yard line.
He then connected with Bennie Fowler on 3rd-and-2 for a 76-yard score. The extra point put the Broncos ahead 24-16 with three minutes remaining and gave their defense the chance to clinch the win.
The NFL highlighted the beautifully placed deep ball:
Denver's defense couldn't seal the deal, however, as Smith found Hill for the touchdown and Demetrius Harris for the game-tying two-point conversion. The call on Hill's catch was overturned by replay when the official said he didn't establish full control until he was in the end zone.
SNF on NBC shared an image of Hill bobbling it before he crossed the plane:
Former quarterback Kurt Warner responded to Smith's touchdown march:
A QB can only hope a D goes into soft prevent D like @Broncos did on that last drive! Way too easy to walk ball into scoring range!!— Kurt Warner (@kurt13warner) November 28, 2016
The Broncos won the coin toss in overtime, and McManus hit a field goal to put them up 27-24.
Kansas City got excellent field position on its chance when De'Anthony Thomas returned the kick to the Chiefs' 35-yard line. The Chiefs stayed alive with a field goal, although they missed a chance to win after entering the red zone.
Denver also had a chance to win when McManus lined up for the 62-yard field goal on the ensuing possession. Kubiak's gamble backfired, and Smith moved the Chiefs into the red zone, where Santos drilled the game-winning kick.
The Broncos embark on a two-game road trip against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans. The 2-9 Jaguars are one of the worst teams in the league, while Tennessee is 6-6. Denver has the opportunity to pick up a few critical wins before a brutal closing stretch against the New England Patriots, Chiefs and Oakland Raiders.
The Chiefs play at the Atlanta Falcons in Week 13 before a crucial three-game home stand against the Raiders, Titans and Broncos that could determine their season.
The division will likely be won in those head-to-head showdowns between Kansas City, Oakland and Denver, and the Chiefs took a monumental step forward with Sunday's victory.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Santos "kept us all in suspense with a chip shot or a bank shot or whatever you want to call it," per Adam Teicher of ESPN.
Reid also talked about Smith, per BJ Kissel of the Chiefs' official website: "We're so lucky to have him. He's so underappreciated."
On the other side, Siemian reflected on the loss, per Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post: "This one stinks. Got a bad taste in our mouth. But one of the strengths of this team is our resilience."
Miller commented on Kubiak's decision to kick the field goal, per the Broncos: "I'm 100 percent behind Kube there (going for the 62-yd OT FG) … I wouldn't just play for the tie either. B-Mac is the man."
Kubiak also discussed his call, per Jhabvala: "I have a lot of confidence in Brandon (McManus), a lot of confidence in our team. That's why we made that decision. ...It's on me."
Cornerback Chris Harris had a glass-half-full approach after the loss, per Jhabvala: "When you play in the AFC West this is how games go down. We just have to get in the playoffs. If we get in, we can be scary."
Just getting there in the AFC West will prove too daunting if the Broncos don't take advantage of their opportunities in the coming weeks.