There was no reason the Kansas City Chiefs' win over the Denver Broncos on Monday night should have been close. There was no reason to allow a team with Trevor Siemian as its quarterback to hang around at Arrowhead Stadium. There was no reason for knuckles to turn white.
That was all true the moment the Chiefs went up by two touchdowns midway through the first quarter. It was even truer when their two-touchdown lead held at halftime.
Yet by the end of the third quarter, the Kansas City offense had gone from white-hot to washed out, and Denver clawed to within one score in a game that seemed destined to be a loud divisional thumping.
Teams are defined by moments like these. They're tested when the ground beneath their feet feels a little uneven and a seemingly easy win threatens to slip away.
In those five-alarm emergencies, a safety net is required. The Chiefs' source of cozy comfort is a physically imposing defense that swarms to both the ball and the quarterback in equal doses.
It's a unit they can trust—even when their surging offense sputters, which is what happened Monday. But Kansas City clung to its roots and reverted to its defense-first identity, prevailing 29-19 in a game with few style points.
It was a night that featured offense from the defense, and Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters was the main contributor. His evening of thrashing and snatching started with a 45-yard fumble-return touchdown in the first quarter. He had the awareness to hold up Broncos running back Jamaal Charles at the end of a run and then rip the ball loose.
The Kansas City defense entered Week 8 with only eight takeaways. In 2016, it led the league with 33. Stripping and recovering the ball to either score or create quality field position is what the Chiefs' tenacious defenders have thrived on for the past few seasons.
They're pesky, annoying and terrifying all at once, with the latter feeling usually coming from an opponent when outside linebacker Justin Houston is bearing down on its quarterback. He finished with two sacks against the Broncos and has 7.5 this season.
Peters was the tone-setter, though, which should surprise no one. Shortly after his fumble-return touchdown, the 24-year-old grabbed one of Siemian's many wayward passes, securing his third interception of 2017 and second in Kansas City's last three games.
Even more incredibly, it was Peters' 17th interception in only his 39th regular-season game. As SNF on NBC noted, he leads the league since entering in 2015 as the 18th overall pick:
And Peters is four interceptions ahead of any other defender, according to Pro Football Reference.
The problem with the Chiefs, however, is that despite the brilliance of Peters and the rest of the defense, there's still a lingering fear it could all be undone if quarterback Alex Smith reverts to a previous version of himself.
That started to happen Monday. In the second quarter, Kansas City was up by 11 points and in position to run away with the game. It faced 3rd-and-4 on its 31-yard line, and Smith spotted wide receiver Tyreek Hill streaking up the right side.
It takes real effort to overthrow Hill and his constantly engaged turbo mode. But Smith did just that, sailing the ball too far after Hill had separated from his defender by at least a full stride.
The misfire foreshadowed what followed for the offense, a revamped unit that settled for five field goals and was uncharacteristically inconsistent.
Smith connected with tight end Travis Kelce for a 29-yard score in the first quarter, the Chiefs' only offensive touchdown. The midseason MVP candidate led an offense that gained 111 yards in the opening quarter, but it finished with just 276 yards, well below Kansas City's juggernaut standards prior to Week 8. The Chiefs had averaged 392.4 yards per game, which put them behind only the Patriots.
A rock-bottom thud came in the third quarter, when K.C. generated only 22 yards, half of which came on one play. It also failed to capitalize on prime field position after a muffed punt, walking away with only three points on a drive that started on Denver's 16-yard line.
None of that mattered. Ugly wins count just the same as pretty ones, and the Chiefs are well-equipped for ugliness, especially with Peters and Houston as the pillars of a defense that does some bending but not much breaking.
Houston did plenty of his own bending Monday, turning corners and making sure the pocket wasn't a pleasant place for Siemian. As Pro Football Focus observed, he was highly effective in his 30 pass-rush snaps:
The Kansas City defense has allowed 20 or fewer points in five of eight games. It's also recorded eight interceptions, three of which came Monday, and 18 sacks.
The unit still has a weakness, and it showed, giving up 177 rushing yards to the Broncos. There are some cracks and imperfections, and it's not structured to stuff the opposing offense.
The Chiefs will give up yards, both on the ground and through the air. But points, the figure that matters most, will be kept to a minimum.
That's the approach Kansas City used to win 12 games in 2016. Now it's 6-2, well clear of 3-4 Denver atop the AFC West.
The difference between the 2016 and 2017 Chiefs is that the offensive stumble we saw Monday will likely be a blip and not the norm. And the defense, as always, will be there to catch and carry the Chiefs as far as they need to go.