DENVER --The AFC West lead. The best record in the conference. An undefeated season.
Plenty was on the line for both teams Sunday night at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. But it was Denver that put an end to Kansas City's perfect record and asserted itself atop the division with a 27-17 victory.
The 27 points were the most allowed by the Chiefs -- the NFL's No. 1 scoring defense -- all season, surpassing the previous high of 17.
"Great, great night of football," Interim Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said. "Two very good football teams going at each other. I thought our fans were tremendous. I was told on the way in we only had 74 no-shows, which means that place was full and rocking, and it was awesome."
Arguably the most critical series of the game came midway through the first quarter with the Broncos ahead 3-0 thanks to a 54-yard Matt Prater field goal.
Facing a third-and-1, Manning and running back Montee Ball fumbled a handoff, which was recovered by Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson with room to run.
But Manning made a touchdown-saving tackle after an 11-yard return.
The Chiefs took over at the Denver 18-yard line, and quarterback Alex Smith found fullback Anthony Sherman on the left sideline. Cornerback Quentin Jammer hit him first, then linebacker Danny Trevathan flew in for a second tackle that jarred the ball loose. Jammer recovered the fumble and the Broncos offense was right back in business.
"The defense responded and got the ball back immediately, so that was a huge turning point to respond like that defensively," Del Rio said. "That was a nice play for us to kind of turn the momentum that they were trying to get there."
Three plays later, Manning hit wide receiver Demaryius Thomas for a 70-yard strike down the sideline. Tight end Julius Thomas capped the five-play drive with a 9-yard touchdown reception, which tied him with Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe for the most touchdowns by a tight end in a single season in team history -- 10.
"Obviously you hate to put the ball on the ground," said Manning, who moved into a tie for the third-most touchdown passes in team history. "We preach ball security all week, not having fumbles or any type of turnovers. So I hated that. It was a third-and-1. I was just trying to hurry to get the ball in Montee's hands. They were kind of blitzing, and I rushed the handoff and didn't give him a good handoff at all. Johnson picked it up and I was kind of right there. That was an interesting turn of events. Obviously, you're not feeling real good leaving the field and then they turn around and fumble right away and I think we go on and score. Pretty critical series there."
What was essentially a 14-point swing made it 10-0 Denver.
But after a frame that featured four punts and two fumbles between the two teams, the second quarter brought a stretch of offensive efficiency on both sides.
On the drive following Denver's touchdown, Smith drove the Kansas City offense 80 yards down the field in 11 plays -- the 11th of which was a 6-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
The Broncos followed that up with a 10-play drive of their own, spurred on by more long passes to the Thomases -- a 20-yarder to Julius and a 29-yarder to Demaryius. Ball closed the series with the first of his two touchdowns, a 1-yard burst up the middle that featured a nifty spin move to avoid a tackle.
"It's better late than never -- I finally showed up," Ball smiled. "I'm glad that the coaches had faith to put me back in there after the exchange problems that we had. But like I said, I'm glad that I just executed and did the right things for my team."
The ensuing Kansas City drive was another key moment in the Broncos' win.
Starting from their own 20-yard line, the Chiefs drove into a goal-to-go situation, starting with first-and-goal at the 2-yard line.
First, safety Mike Adams stopped running back Jamaal Charles for no gain. Then it was defensive linemen Terrance Knighton and Shaun Phillips' turn to stonewall a back, halting Sherman after a yard. Finally, on third-and-1, linebacker Steven Johnson laid a huge hit on Charles to stop him for no gain. The Chiefs elected to settle for a 20-yard field goal to pull to within seven points, 17-10.
"We were just trying to be physical and force our will up front," defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said. "It was going to be a physical game."
On the other side of the ball, the Broncos offensive line didn't allow a single sack. In fact, the NFL's leading sack defense wasn't credited with a single quarterback hit.
"Protection was great," Manning said. "The guys up front did a great job and answered the bell."
After Ryan Succop's second-quarter field goal, Denver scored 10 unanswered points -- Ball's second rushing score and a 36-yard Prater field goal -- to stretch its lead to 27-10.
Kansas City found the end zone again with 5:02 left in the fourth quarter when Smith found his tight end Anthony Fasano. But that would prove to be the final score of the game.
Denver provided the first blemish on the Chiefs' record, and in the process moved into first place in the AFC West, tied with Kansas City at 9-1.
"It's huge," said Phillips, whose stat line included 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and two passes defensed. "But again, we're not going to stop to celebrate. We're going to enjoy this tonight for 24 hours and then get ready for another really, really good football team – in New England, on their turf."
The Broncos and Chiefs have a rematch awaiting in just two weeks at Arrowhead Stadium, but Denver's focus is on its game next Sunday -- once again on Sunday Night Football -- against the Patriots.
"We're ready for it," defensive captain Wesley Woodyard said. "They got on us last year, so we're ready for that challenge."