The Broncos are getting closer to the defending Super Bowl champs.
How close Denver truly is to the 11-1 Kansas City Chiefs — who are closing in on a fifth consecutive AFC West title — is a matter of perspective.
"You close the gap when you beat them," Drew Lock said after the game. "There are no feel-good losses in this league, ever. We did play them closer than we have before, but what does that get you? Nothing — it gets you an upset locker room, it gets you to a sad flight home, but we'll learn from it and keep getting better and keep focusing on these little things that sometimes bite us in the butt."
The Broncos battled Kansas City in a 22-16 "Sunday Night Football" loss and had a chance to drive down the field for a go-ahead score with just over a minute remaining. After losing their previous three meetings to the Chiefs by a combined score of 96 to 25, that felt significant. The Broncos stymied the Chiefs' potent offense in the red zone, held a halftime lead and traded blows with Patrick Mahomes and Co.
It was the Broncos' best performance in Arrowhead Stadium since a 2015 win — Denver's last win over the Chiefs — and the first time they held a halftime lead on the road over their rivals in six years.
That still wasn't enough to earn a win — or for the Broncos to be pleased with their performance.
"There's no moral victories," Head Coach Vic Fangio said. "We came here to win. I fully thought we would win and I'm disappointed that we came up short."
At times, it felt like the Broncos were going to knock off the Chiefs for the first time in 11 tries. In an impressive first half, Denver stifled Mahomes and the league's second-ranked scoring offense. Kansas City was 0-of-4 in the red zone on the night and 0-of-3 in goal-to-go situations. Denver's red-zone defense improved to the best in the league as the Chiefs settled for five field goals.
"Some of them were very tough situations," Fangio said. "They had the ball on the 1-yard line twice, I believe, for two of those plays. They're really good down there and we are too, and it was just our night in the red zone."
Kansas City scored just one touchdown on Sunday, which was just the second time Mahomes' Chiefs have been held to that total. The Chiefs were 3-of-10 on third down, and just 3-of-18 on third down against the Broncos over their two matchups this season. The Chiefs have converted third downs at a 53.6 percent clip against the rest of the league, compared to just 16.7 percent against the Broncos.
Denver, meanwhile, opened the scoring with a 53-yard field goal and built a 10-3 lead on a seven-play, 90-yard drive that was keyed by a 65-yard Melvin Gordon III run. Gordon finished the game with 131 yards on 15 carries as the Broncos rushed for 179 yards.
"It's just a mindset," Gordon said. "I just believe when you've got the whole world telling you that you're going to lose, you should listen to that and do something about it. Don't come out here and just settle for what everyone thinks it's going to be. I believed that we can win this game, and we believed that we could win this game. We came out with a chip on our shoulder. We tried to do what we could, but at the end of the day, they made more plays than we did."
In the second half, the Broncos' offense responded to their first deficit of the game by traveling 72 yards in 11 plays for a go-ahead touchdown. Lock found Patrick in the corner of the end zone for a completion that NFL's Next Gen Stats called the most improbable touchdown pass of his career. Patrick had just 0.8 yards of separation from his defender and 0.9 yards of separation from the sideline, and the play had just a 27.1 percent chance of being completed. Patrick finished the game with four catches for 44 yards and two scores.
"Tim has been Tim this whole year — Mr. Reliable, Mr. Consistent," Lock said. "He's always, always there for you whenever you need him."
The Broncos also benefited from their share of good fortune. In the second quarter, Mahomes looked deep for Tyreek Hill for a 40-yard touchdown pass. Hill initially dropped the pass, and it appeared to fall incomplete as he and A.J. Bouye fell tangled to the ground. The Chiefs punted, but a replay showed the ball never touched the ground and that Hill had made the reception. Instead of the Chiefs going up 10-3, the Broncos got the ball back and scored a touchdown of their own. Hill had another touchdown reception wiped off the board in the fourth quarter when a holding penalty set up a third-and-20 that the Chiefs were unable to convert.
Several turning points, though, prevented the Broncos from earning an upset win.
Late in the first half, after the Chiefs cut Denver's lead to 10-6, the Broncos were unable to pick up a first down on a screen pass to Noah Fant. Brandon McManus' 57-yard attempt flew wide left with 28 seconds to play, and the Chiefs took over at their own 47-yard line. Five plays later, the Chiefs had cut the lead to one. Kansas City would regain the lead on the first possession of the second half.
"Brandon's obviously one of our best weapons," Fangio said. "He's had a hell of a season. He's a hell of a kicker. We had a chance to get three there. I fully acknowledged and understood at the time that if he missed it, where they would get the ball. But there was a chance to get three, I believed in him, and it didn't work out."
The Chiefs scored on both of their third-quarter possessions — including their lone touchdown of the game — as Mahomes repeatedly found Travis Kelce for key gains. Kelce finished with eight receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown as he took advantage of soft spots in Denver's zone defense.
Kansas City sealed the game, though, in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. After the Broncos took a 16-12 lead late in the third quarter, Denver punted twice and threw an interception over its final three possessions.
On the Broncos' penultimate possession, they faced a fourth-and-3 near midfield, but chose to punt with just over six minutes to play. The Broncos wouldn't get the ball back until the Chiefs had extended their lead to six points and bled the clock down to just more than a minute remaining.
"I gave it a strong consideration, but at some point in the game we've got to get a stop and we weren't able to there," Fangio said. "We held them to a field goal, but that made it a touchdown game and burned out some of the time there. So, in retrospect, [we] should have probably gone for it, but I did give it serious thought."
Lock, who posted his best quarterback rating of his three career games against the Chiefs, threw a game-ending interception on fourth-and-5. He also threw an interception on the first drive of the game, but he finished 15-of-28 for 151 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. The young quarterback now has two touchdown passes and five interceptions in his career vs. Kansas City.
"I thought him and really our entire offense responded well," Fangio said. "We had some nice drives. We converted some third downs there — had a higher percentage than we have [had] all year and gave ourselves a chance to win. But we didn't finish it and ultimately that's what we came here to do is to win, and we didn't get it done."
Without a victory — moral or literal — the Broncos will now turn their attention toward carrying the performance over to a Week 14 matchup vs. Carolina. Earning a win there, Shelby Harris said Sunday, may be the best way to move on from a game that showed the Broncos they could compete with the league's best — and that they still have work to do.
"We went in there, we played our tails off, and we lost," Harris said. Y"ou go into a game trying to win. So, my biggest thing really is just that we can play with the best of them. When we don't turn the ball over and we don't do all this crazy stuff — we can play with the best of them. So, let's keep playing with the best — let's keep playing like this. So, it's something to build on.
"Obviously, we're not happy that we lost, but this is how we should be playing every week."