Peyton Manning walked away a winner in the biggest game of the year so far and, as a bonus, the Broncos might not even have to send his uniform off to the cleaners.
Manning threw for 323 yards and a touchdown Sunday night and was barely touched by Kansas City’s sack-happy defense in Denver’s 27-17 victory over the NFL’s last undefeated team.
It means the `72 Dolphins can rest easy for another year. And it puts Denver and the Chiefs in a tie atop the AFC West at 9-1, with a rematch set in two weeks.
Manning has another big game before that — at New England in yet another showdown against Tom Brady. If the Broncos’ offensive line does anywhere near as good a job in that one as it did against the Chiefs, the quarterback’s ailing ankles — mummified with athletic tape for this critical game — should be feeling much better.
"The protection was outstanding, we ran the ball consistently, tried to keep them off-balance," Manning said. "We wanted a mix of running and passing game and I’m really proud of those guys up front."
With Lindsey Vonn and boyfriend Tiger Woods on the sideline to watch the NFL’s must-see game of the year, the Denver offensive line, featuring tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin, shut out Kansas City’s sack duo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali along with the rest of the KC defense, which came in with a league-leading 36 sacks.
"I think they did a good job of getting the ball out fast," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "They worked the pocket well. A few times we had pressure, you saw him slide and throw the ball out, which isn’t easy to do. But we can do a better job there. We can get a little more pressure on him and we’ll work on that."
Any pressure at all would be an improvement.
The Chiefs didn’t record a single hit on Manning and he was barely touched all night. In fact, his most notable contact came in the first quarter when he and Montee Ball flubbed a handoff that Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson scooped up.
Johnson was barreling toward the end zone and what could’ve been a 7-3 lead. Manning lowered his shoulder and tripped him up. The Chiefs’ offense came out and fullback Anthony Sherman promptly fumbled the ball back to the Broncos.
"That was a huge turning point," said Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio, now 2-0 running the show in Denver while John Fox recovers from heart surgery.
Three plays after his tackle, Manning made the game’s biggest play on offense, spotting receiver Demaryius Thomas in single coverage on the sideline for a 70-yard gain that set up the quarterback’s lone touchdown pass — a 9-yard strike to Julius Thomas for a 10-0 lead.
The Chiefs’ defense, which came into the game also leading the league in points allowed (12.8), remained stout throughout against the league’s highest-scoring offense (41.2). But eventually, Manning and Co., overwhelmed them, going 79, 65 and 62 yards for their last three scores and a 27-10 lead.
Ball capped two of the drives, once from 1 yard and another time from 8, to atone for the fumble, which was actually charged to Manning.
"We knew that once we got down to the red zone, getting touchdowns was critical," Manning said. "They make teams settle for field goals down there."
The Chiefs, who hadn’t lost since a 38-3 setback in Denver last December to close out a 2-14 season, hadn’t allowed more than 17 points all year — a simple and effective explanation for one of the biggest turnarounds in NFL history.
But the offense, led by Alex Smith, simply isn’t built to win a high-scoring showdown.
Smith finished with 230 yards and two touchdowns. He completed four passes for 57 yards to Dwayne Bowe, who started, as promised, while his legal case for marijuana possession plays out. Jamaal Charles, who came in leading the AFC in rushing with 725 yards, added 78 to that.
"We didn’t do a good enough job offensively," Reid said. "That’s my responsibility. We’re a young football team. We’ll get it worked out and fixed and get better next week. `’
The game-time temperature of 43 degrees brought Manning’s blue-and-gray glove out for the first time this season but didn’t slow the quarterback or his offense at all.
Knowshon Moreno ran for 79 yards and kept the chains moving for Denver, while Wes Welker took his turn as Manning’s favorite target, catching eight passes for 72 yards before leaving to be evaluated for a possible concussion.
Though one touchdown pass marked a season low for Manning, it gave him 71 in his year-plus with the Broncos, already tying him for third in franchise history with Jake Plummer and Brian Griese. His 34 on the season are still on pace to break the record of the man he’ll face next week — Brady — in yet another big game for the Broncos, this time at New England.
While the Chiefs got shut out on the sack end — didn’t even record a hit on Manning — Shaun Phillips had a monster game for the Broncos: 10 tackles, two quarterback hits, two pass deflections and 1.5 sacks to more than make up for an off night from Von Miller, who only had one tackle.