By Landon Jones, Latin Life Denver, Photos courtesy: Denver Broncos
The key to being a great poker player is not over betting your hand — even when you have the goods.
All Monday night, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning knew he had a stooge in Chiefs cornerback Jamell Fleming, but stayed patient until it was necessary to push his chips all into the middle. And on the final drive, Manning targeted Fleming four times leading to four completions, 58 yards and the game-tying touchdown.
Manning simply knew he had a full house and Kansas City was only sporting a flush.
Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles decided to give the game away by loosely holding onto the football on a meaningless run play with 27 seconds left which was poked loose by linebacker Brandon Marshall and returned for a touchdown by Bradley Robly. The stunned Chiefs audience gasped in disbelief while pockets of orange-clad Broncos fans raised their arms in victory.
Denver won its 13th straight division road game, breaking a tie with the San Francisco 49ers (1987-90) for most in NFL history, and Manning quieted his growing doubters by improving to 14-1 in his career against the Chiefs.
“I’ve been involved in a couple of pretty crazy games,” Manning said, “but nothing quite like this.”
This game exemplifies why Denver is a winning team and why Kansas City has no clue how to become a winner. Charles gained 125 yards on 21 carries, but had two critical fumbles. Chiefs coach Andy Reid afterwards was hounded by hometown fans and the national media for terrible play calling and clock management.
Charles averaged nearly six yards per carry against the Broncos but was largely ignored in the red zone and in critical clock situations. His one touchdown run came from 34 yards out, and he didn’t touch the ball when the Chiefs started a second-quarter drive with 2:36 remaining and a seven-point lead.
Though the Chiefs proved they can play with Denver, this was an insanely bad loss for Kansas City and propels Denver to a 2-0 record against tough conference rivals. Now the Broncos have 10 days to practice and get well after playing two staunch defenses before they play at Detroit, a well-deserved and necessary rest.
The game started poorly for the Broncos who were stymied on their first few possessions and watched the Chiefs march up and down the field. If it wasn’t for the Chiefs coaching ineptitude and players making sloppy mistakes, the game could have been over early.
Kansas City was gashing the Broncos defensive middle and pounded the ball to the two yard line with first and goal. Unbelievably, three passing plays were called by Reid, the last to Charles who fumbled on the five giving Denver possession and snuffing out a field goal opportunity.
Though Denver dodged that early bullet, the Chiefs got the back and quickly scored to make it 7-0. On the next series, Manning threw a poor pass which was picked off by Chiefs corner Marcus Peters and returned for a touchdown, Denver faced a 14-0 deficit in a hostile environment and with little to no running game.
Manning, noticeably shaken and upset on the sidelines, decided it was time to scrap coach Gary Kubiak’s run-oriented offense. If Manning was going down, it would be on his terms. And as a poker player receiving his first two cards —unsuited and unconnected — Manning caught a break when his third card matched up and created a pair.
Quickening the pace and exposing a winded Chiefs defense, Manning drove 80 yards for a touchdown passing more than running and spreading the field with Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas (DT) and instead of trying to exploit Chiefs rookie corner Peters, who had a solid game, Manning started to target Fleming. Manning soon realized whenever the Broncos needed a key third down or a big play, Fleming simply could not cover the Broncos receivers.
With the Chiefs top cornerback, Sean Smith, still serving a three-game suspension, Denver’s offense veered away from Peters and Phillip Gaines and started concentrating on Kansas City’s No. 4 corner, Fleming. It was no contest. When Denver used three or four wide receivers, Kansas City’s Achilles heel was fatally exposed.
Manning’s cleverness was not only finding the weak link in the Chiefs chain, but only exploiting it when necessary so Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton would not change tactics and adapt by the end of the game.
Manning received another matching card moments later giving him two pair, when unbelievably, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid decided to push his luck just before halftime and the Chiefs with a 14-7 lead. Reid could have run the clock out but decided to risk an Alex Smith pass which was terrible and easily picked off by Denver corner Aqib Talib.
Denver soon struck with a 16-yard Manning pass to Virgil Green to make the game tied at 14-14 and give the Broncos life.
In the second half, both teams exchanged field goals and then the Chiefs scored late in the fourth quarter to make it 24-17.
Despite trailing by a touchdown and backed up on their own 20 with four minutes to play, Manning knew he had picked up his full house (targeting Fleming) and it was just a matter of exploiting the Chiefs for all their cash. First, Manning passed to Thomas for three long receptions to get deep into Chiefs territory, and then hit Sanders with a strike over the middle on third-and-10 from the Chiefs for the touchdown.
On the touchdown, Sanders gave a little wiggle fake, buckling Fleming’s knees and allowing the receiver to run unchecked across the middle of the field. All in baby!
Kansas City threw all its chips away on Charles’ bizarre run and paid off the Broncos handsomely with the game-losing fumble.
Peyton’s mastery of the Chiefs continues. He’s always holding the better hand.
“That last drive was really good,” said Manning, who joined Brett Favre during the game as the only quarterbacks in NFL history with at least 70,000 yards passing. “I’m really proud of our young offensive line — no poise issues, no communication issues.
“Two games in a row we saved our best drive for the end of the game, and that’s a positive and something we can build on.”
And like an expert card player, Manning made sure he did not give away his secrets.
“We don’t pick on anybody or target anybody,” he said grinning ear to ear. “We were, obviously, trying to get the ball to our play makers. DT and I felt like we were playing at recess on a couple of those throws.”
Sure, Mr. Manning. And it helps when you find that patsy plays for the other team.