KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It's easy to look back at everything that transpired Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium as a series of tests.
There was the early 14-point deficit -- that could have been greater if not for Wesley Woodyard's end-zone interception. There was a pressure-oriented Kansas City defense that successfully discombobulated the passing game in the early stages. There was also a Chiefs offense that abandoned its check-down mentality and tested tested the injury-depleted Broncos' cornerback corps.
And finally, the Broncos appeared to have victory in their grasp twice, only to see it yanked away by a penalty away from the football and an instant-replay gamble that came up snake eyes.
"It shows a lot of character," said running back Montee Ball. "Nobody flinched. We just kept doing our assignment, doing our assignment, and not looking up at the scoreboard."
"It defines a team," added linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "It says a lot about your team to continue to fight (and) push hard."
1. DEFENSE: WINNING THE BATTLE UP FRONT.
Early in the game, the Broncos were getting blown off the line of scrimmage by the Chiefs' offensive line, and the result was predictable: Alex Smith had plenty of time to throw, and he and his running backs, Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis, combined to average 8.3 yards per carry in the first quarter. Davis' 20-yard jaunt was particularly galling, as he sprinted through a gaping hole in the heart of Denver's defense.
"They came out and we let them be the aggressor the first half," Woodyard said. "We just had to tone it down."
There was an understandable adjustment to life without Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson, two starters who were lost to seizure symptoms and a hip injury this week. But as the game progressed, Malik Jackson and Mitch Unrein grew more comfortable in expanded roles, and Robert Ayers also took advantage of an increase in playing time. At one point, the Broncos stopped the Chiefs on seven consecutive third downs; during that span, the Chiefs were shut out, while the Broncos scored 28 consecutive points.
2. OFFENSE: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.
It wasn't so much that Kansas City did anything that they had not done before. They've blitzed slot cornerbacks. They've moved safety Eric Berry all around and encouraged him to attack. They've sent inside linebacker Derrick Johnson up the middle on blitzes. It's all there on the Chiefs' previous 11 games of tape, and these looks were thrown at the Broncos from time to time a fortnight earlier.
But unlike in Week 11, the pressure worked. Manning was hit three times, although he was not sacked, and pressure helped lead to his interceptions. The solution rested in the running game and the ability of play-action, which Manning used to devastating effectiveness on a variety of deep passes to Eric Decker: post and flag routes past Brandon Flowers and a route down the seam past Marcus Cooper, who was also beaten by Demaryius Thomas for a 77-yard gain.
But even play-action didn't completely dull the sharp edge of the Chiefs' pass rush, and it was something that always remained at the front of Manning's mind -- particularly Berry, who was spectacular in defeat.
"You try to do different things to keep them off balance. They are a good defense. That Eric Berry is all over the place," said Manning. "He had a blitz on a play-action pass early in the game where we had to throw it away.
"That kind of makes you not as crazy about doing play-action if he's going to be able to get free and had a couple run-throughs on some run plays. But you have to try to call different types of plays versus the Chiefs because they have so many good players."
Against a defense like Kansas City's, nothing is going to work every time. But play-action worked enough and kept them off-balance to bring the deep ball back into the Broncos' arsenal, which allowed the Broncos to return to optimal efficiency.
3. AVOID THE BIG MISTAKE.
They made mistakes, but they weren't big ones, relative to the final result.
It was a testament to the efficiency of the Broncos' offense in the middle of the game that a pair of Manning interceptions were overcome. The offense found its stride via play-action passes to set up deep shots to Eric Decker, and over a stretch that included five possessions and a kneeldown, the Broncos scored four times on drives that covered an average of 79.5 yards while averaging 9.69 yards per play and gaining one first down every 2.33 plays.
In retrospect, although the Chiefs finished with the advantage in takeaways (2-to-1), the Broncos forced the most important turnover -- Wesley Woodyard's interception of Smith at the end of the game's first series qualified as the game's biggest mistake. It wiped seven points off the scoreboard and profoundly affected the flow of the game; by the second quarter, the Broncos knew they could stay cool, facing a manageable 14-point deficit that they had overcome against the Cowboys in Week 5.