DENVER — Forget the nauseating streak and the division dominance, the chasm between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos played out in slow motion in the second quarter Sunday.
On third-and-2 from the 44-yard line, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes received pressure up the middle and sprinted to his right. No one transitions from cringe to cool more smoothly than Mahomes. As he stared at the Broncos sideline, he flipped a pass to running back Jerick McKinnon. As the crowd gasped, McKinnon raced untouched into the end zone.
There it was, the difference, neatly packaged with a Wow! for a bow. The Chiefs feature a quarterback who plays like Steph Curry, capable of no-look passes. The Broncos counter with an offense that no one wants to look at.
The only difference Sunday is that the Broncos responded to the throttling by finally throwing haymakers. Mahomes started turning the ball over, and the Broncos began treating this game as their Super Bowl, reaching a season-high in points, watching Russell Wilson play his best game as a Bronco before suffering a concussion that left him with a knot on the side of his head, and igniting the home crowd.
In the end, The Chiefs eclipsed Broncos, securing an 34-28 victory, their 14th straight over the Broncos. With a Chargers loss on Sunday night, the Chiefs clinch their seventh consecutive AFC West crown.
"The goal is to win. When we were down 27-0, guys had a choice. They didn't blink. They stayed together," coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "We have to emphasize finishing. We have been through a lot of adversity this year. We have to keep working."
Denver showed fight, turning two interceptions into touchdowns after trailing 27-0. But consolation prizes and participation trophies continue to feel empty given the pride of the Broncos franchise.
Denver has not won a home game against Kansas City since Sept. 14, 2014. And it is increasingly unlikely Hackett will get a chance to end the home skid. Everything he promised this season — from good health to a prolific attack to a December push — has failed miserably, leading to speculation about Sean Payton, Jim Harbaugh, Dan Quinn or Frank Reich.
The Broncos have lost nine of their last 10 games. They have not won at home since Sept. 25. Their offense ranks dead last in scoring — 13 points per game — even with the season-high in points against the Chiefs.
"One thing I can say about this team is we keep fighting," receiver Jerry Jeudy said.
Denver gave itself a chance. Staring at a 34-21 deficit in the fourth quarter, Wilson scrambled 14 yards to the 2-yard line with 12:16 remaining in the game. He hit the ground violently with his head as defenders landed on him. Teammates reacted with concern, immediately signaling for the training staff. It appeared Wilson was out on the field. He stood up and walked off, even asking to stay in the game. As he exited into concussion protocol, a huge knot on the right side of Wilson's head remained visible.
With Wilson out, Brett Rypien worked magic, connecting with Jerry Jeudy on fourth-and-7 for a touchdown. It was Jeudy's third touchdown of the game after entering with three on the season. However, Rypien was later hit and threw a pick late in the fourth quarter, squashing the comeback.
"It's just frustrating we couldn't finish," Rypien said. "There was a little hesitation and I thought I had a good one on one matchup there. Just frustrating."
The second quarter proved the most exciting of the season. The Broncos trailed 27-0 after a Wilson pick six. Then Josey Jewell intercepted Mahomes at midfield. The Broncos managed to embarrass themselves by posing for an end zone picture that came across as tone deaf. Yet, the Broncos offense finally awoke. Wilson lofted an 18-yard rainbow to Jerry Jeudy for a touchdown, the first by a Broncos receiver at home this season.
Star cornerback Pat Surtain II answered with his first pick of the season, a diving stab off his elbow and into his chest that was ruled a turnover after a review. Wilson scrambled for yards — he led Broncos rushers with 43 at half — and found a wide-open Jeudy for his first multiple-touchdown game.
Down 27-14, the Broncos received the ball to open the third quarter after a halftime light show that would have made a lot more sense if this game wasn't flexed out of prime time. The offense found its traction from an unlikely name. Reserve running back Marlon Mack caught a perfectly executed screen pass and galloped, stumbled and leaped into the end zone after navigating 66 yards.
With 13:03 remaining in the third, the Broncos were in it. The crowd was losing itself in delirium. There was a real energy. Then a buzzkill followed as the Broncos next two drives dissolved — they rotated three left guards in Luke Wattenberg (he really struggled), Netane Muti and Quinn Bailey — in sacks and misfires.
The Chiefs extended their lead to 35-21 as Mahomes spun around and found JuJu Smith-Schuster for a 4-yard score with :38 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
Before the fans found hope, they suffered sore throats. They booed the Broncos after Mahomes found McKinnon for a short scoring pass, shoving Kansas City ahead 20-0 with 7:16 remaining in the half. The lead mocked the Broncos since Denver had failed to reach 20 points in 10 of their 12 games.
The Chiefs grabbed a lead with a 35-yard field goal on their first drive. The Broncos responded with an encouraging punch that lost its thump. The Broncos converted three consecutive third downs on passes to Kendall Hinton and a rugged run by Latavius Murray. First downs have felt like touchdowns to the Broncos, who went 2-for-12 on third down last week and entered the game converting 27 percent for the season. The drive fizzled when tight end Greg Dulcich stutter stepped his route and couldn't haul in a Wilson pass.
Set up by a 38-yard completion to Travis Kelce, the Chiefs answered with another Harrison Butker field goal, a 45-yarder. Kansas City finished with 138 yards to Denver's 37 in the first quarter as Mahomes completed 9 of 12 passes.
What appeared as the worst half of the season suddenly became interesting. The offense looked functional, explosive, unpredictable. In the end, however, the result was no different, just more painful.
"Kudos for the effort," nose tackle D.J. Jones said. "But an L is an L."