By Mark Schiff
If the Kansas City Chiefs want to claim the AFC West crown from the Denver Broncos, they’re going to have to take it—just like Denver did.
Keyed by another lights-out defensive performance, the Broncos scored two touchdowns in a span of :09 seconds during the game’s final minute to pull out an astonishing 31-24 victory in Kansas City on Thursday night. With the win, the Broncos set an NFL record for most consecutive road wins against divisional opponents at 13, a remarkable streak dating all the way back to before Tim Tebow was bringing Broncos fans to their knees.
As Denver improves to a hard-fought 2-0 on the season, here are your Week 2 team grades.
That gust you felt blowing around Denver after the game last night was the collective exhale let out by Broncos country. After struggling through one of his worst games as a pro in Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, Manning picked right up where he let down. When he wasn’t chucking ugly pick-sixes or lofting long balls just out of reach of his receivers, he was getting knocked around thanks to a porous offensive line.
But when he led the team on an 80-yard touchdown drive late in the second quarter, Peyton appeared to settle into a rhythm that had thus far eluded him this season. He looked like vintage Manning as he hit Demaryius Thomas for a series of long gains while driving the Broncos down the field for a game-tying touchdown with :36 seconds remaining. Denver’s ability to move the ball against good defenses in late-game pressure situations two weeks in a row goes a long way toward obscuring the team’s paltry 61 yards rushing and the troubling protection issues along the offensive line.
If it weren’t for a series of inexcusable personal foul penalties that cost the Broncos 60 yards in the first half, Denver’s defense would have earned a hard “A” for the second week in a row. Once again, they looked masterful across all position groups. Pass rushers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware each recorded a sack as they wreaked havoc in the Chiefs backfield. Cornerbacks Chris Harris and Aqib Talib both got interceptions, with Talib’s in particular shining as a beautiful example of the type of pick that comes from study in the film room. And the game was won in the final minute when linebacker Brandon Marshall forced a fumble by Jamaal Charles that safety Bradley Roby returned for a touchdown.
Outside of their four turnovers—none of which were gifted—Denver’s most impressive stat was holding Kansas City to 0-7 on third down. They may have surrendered a few big plays to Charles and the Chiefs tight ends, but the Broncos again proved their knack for big plays in big situations, the defining trait of an elite defense.
Special Teams: A-
As good as the defense has been, Denver’s special teams is its most improved unit since last season. Absolutely crushing a 54-yard field goal in the third quarter, Brandon McManus has hit three kicks beyond 50 yards in two games and is increasingly looking like the rare kicker whose range is an offensive boon. Pressed into heavy action, Britton Colquitt had a solid 44-yard average on seven punts, and the coverage on returns has been excellent, as they too got in on the turnover-palooza with a second-quarter fumble and recovery. Special teams were shaky for a few years and their much-needed improvement has paid real dividends over the past two wins.
In the second quarter with the game still scoreless, Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak made his first questionable coaching decision since taking over the team. With Denver facing fourth and 1 on the Kansas City 22, he passed up a likely three points and called a draw play that went for a first down. The problem was, Denver called a timeout prior to the snap, negating the play. Kubiak again opted to go for the first down instead of the field goal attempt, but the end around to Emmanuel Sanders (who has otherwise been a first-down machine) was sniffed out and Denver surrendered the ball on downs.
All told, the Broncos burned three timeouts due to apparent communication issues, something they have to fix. But Kubiak was savvy enough to use the team’s final timeouts ahead of the two minute warning, which bought the Broncos time for their final drive. He also deserves credit for the adjustments that allowed Manning to finish with the respectable line of 26/45 for 256 yards and 3 TDs.
With an uplifting road victory over what appears to be a very good Kansas City team, Denver earned the extra rest they’ll get after playing two games in five days. The Broncos now have 10 full days to recover before they face the Detroit Lions on Sept. 27 in a primetime matchup from the Motor City on Sunday Night Football.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.