Linebacker Nick Bolton’s 86-yard fumble return after Melvin Ingram III darted into Denver’s backfield untouched and stripped Melvin Gordon powered the Kansas City Chiefs to a 28-24 victory over the Denver Broncos on Saturday.
With their 13th consecutive win over the Broncos, the Chiefs (12-5) kept alive their hopes of getting the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
They need Houston to upset Tennessee on Sunday to get the pole position; otherwise, they’re the second seed and will host a wild-card game next weekend in their quest to reach a third consecutive Super Bowl.
“We’re ready to go against wherever against whomever,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said.
Wide receiver Tyreek Hill could surely use the week off that goes to the top seed in each conference. He injured a heel in pregame warmups and was held to one catch for 2 yards.
With Hill hurt, Mecole Hardman stepped up with eight catches for 103 yards.
“No one is Tyreek. He’s a special player that has never been seen in this league,” Mahomes said. “But Mecole is pretty close. … He was prepared for this moment.”
The Broncos (7-10) were ahead 21-20 and driving for another touchdown when Ingram sped past tight end Noah Fant and blew up the play just as Drew Lock handed the ball to Gordon.
Bolton scooped up the loose ball and rumbled 86 yards to give the Chiefs their biggest lead, and Mahomes’ keeper on the 2-point conversion made it 28-21.
Lock and the Broncos quickly got into scoring position again, but coach Vic Fangio, who fell to 19-30 as Denver’s head coach, decided on a field goal on fourth-and-9 from the 13 as the crowd relentlessly booed the decision.
Fangio explained that kicking the field goal with 4:37 left gave his team a chance to get a stop and get the ball back. Even if they gave up a field goal, they’d be down a touchdown and could tie it: “I understand the second-guessing there and going for it. But fourth-and-9, your chances are not great.”
Brandon McManus nailed the 31-yarder, but the Broncos still trailed by four and would need a touchdown if they were able to stop Mahomes.
On third-and-8 from the Denver 17, Mahomes found Travis Kelce for an 11-yard gain at the two-minute warning, with the Broncos having burned all their timeouts.
The Chiefs lined up in victory formation as the clock ticked down and the crowd of 61,441 — there were nearly 15,000 empty seats — streamed for the exits, a fifth straight losing season in the books and their playoff drought now stretched to six years.
Jerick McKinnon broke three tackles on his way to a 14-yard touchdown catch that put Kansas City ahead 17-14 on the opening drive of the third quarter.
Lock responded with a 31-yard dart to Tim Patrick on third-and-13 — that one pass topped Lock’s total yardage in the first half — and then Gordon burst through the line for a 47-yard touchdown that gave Denver a 21-17 lead the Broncos would take into the fourth quarter.
Harrison Butker’s 51-yard field goal pulled Kansas City to 21-20 early in the fourth quarter and capped a 10-play drive that covered just 25 yards.
Lock completed just 4 of 10 passes for 27 yards in the first half but the Broncos took a 14-10 lead into halftime thanks to Lock’s touchdown scrambles of 5 and 23 yards.
Kelce’s 3-yard catch put K.C. ahead 7-0, but Zayne Anderson’s roughing penalty on punter Sam Martin saved the Broncos from a second straight three-and-out, and Lock capitalized on his second chance to tie it with his 5-yard scramble that tied it at 7.
That drive started at the Denver 33 after Butker slipped on the kickoff. He also slipped twice in pregame warmups and changed his cleats before the game.
Denver got its ground game going to take a 14-7 lead when Lock kept it himself and darted up the middle from 23 yards out. That made him the first Broncos quarterback to with two touchdown runs in a game since Tim Tebow in 2011.
The Broncos, missing three of their top four cornerbacks, dropped two interceptions, one by Michael Ojemudia on Kansas City’s opening drive and another at the goal line by Kyle Fuller.
Right after Fuller’s miss, Butker’s 34-yard field goal pulled Kansas City to 14-10.
The Chiefs were 11-point favorites according to FanDuel SportsBook marking just the third time in the last last 42 years that the Broncos were double-digit home underdogs.
The others were in 1987 against the Raiders with replacements during the players’ strike and last year when they played the Saints with all four of their quarterbacks in COVID-19 protocols.
Fangio got emotional in his postgame news conference but said he hadn’t heard if he’d be back for the fourth year on his contract.
“You saw it out there tonight, a bunch of fighters and competitors” he said. “And I think you saw it all year. And that’s what these guys are. I’m proud to be associated with them. I’m not proud of our record. I know it’s not good enough. I get it. But I’m proud to be associated with our players.”