The only thing Dexter McCluster caught consistently was grief. There was no one between Donnie Avery and Mount Evans on a beautiful first-half seam route, and the cat still whiffed on the grab.
Anthony Sherman, alone in the flat, fielded a swing pass deep in Denver territory and fumbled the ball right back to the hosts, killing a gift-wrapped shot at early momentum.
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And Dwayne Bowe: 14 targets, four receptions.
Hang on, hang on, hang on. How is Denver 27, Chiefs 17 somehow Alex Smith’s fault?
His failure? Yes.
His fault? Not hardly. Not entirely.
There were plenty of accomplices Sunday, spread up and down the depth chart. Left tackle Branden Albert was whistled for a false start on the first play of the evening, setting the tone for an up-and-down night for the entire offensive line. At right tackle, rookie Eric Fisher won some battles, lost some very big ones and ultimately left the contest with shoulder issues. Right guard Jon Asamoah exited gingerly, too.
Smith was sacked three times; Peyton Manning, none. The Chiefs’ signal-caller threw two touchdown passes and wasn’t picked off, but that particular ration was fortuitous: At least five of Smith’s passes were batted down, or batted up, at the line of scrimmage.
On other occasions, Smith was guilty of holding the ball for too long. On too many occasions, he was running for his life.
So while Manning will get the headlines and the face time, this was a defeat felt most painfully up front, on both sides of the football.
With all the talk about the Chiefs’ top-ranked defense against the Broncos’ top-ranked offense, the real question was always going to be — and will be again during the rematch at Arrowhead in two weeks — about what Smith and the Kansas City offense could do when faced with Denver’s pressure.
The early returns weren’t pretty.
But give credit where it’s due. Overdue, actually. The Broncos send Von Miller and Shaun Phillips at opposing passers, down after down. Champ Bailey holds down one corner, when his wonky foot allows, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie raising Cain at the other. Veteran Quentin Jammer is part of the nickel and dime packages. Not a slouch in the bunch.
To put it another way — and not all that kindly — the Chiefs’ purported weakness is, in fact, weaker than Denver’s. At least, when matched up head to head.
As the noted philosopher Dennis Green once famously bellowed from on high, they are who we thought they were. And more’s the pity.
The worst thing you can do with Manning is leave him clean throwing lanes and a clean jersey. But the next worst thing you can do is leave him off the stinking hook.
At the start of the third quarter, trailing 17-10 on the road, the Chiefs’ defense did its part, forcing Manning and his mates into three straight three-and-outs to open Sunday night’s second half. Here’s how the visitors responded:
+ Three plays, three yards, punt
+ Six plays, 10 yards, punt
+ Nine plays, 51 yards, punt
The damage: Three series, 18 plays, 64 yards, three punts.
Staying within shouting distance does you no good if the best counter-argument in your holster is a whisper.
Sure enough, Denver got tired of waiting for The Andy Gang to take the hint and went up by two scores. For the first time, we found out what this offense could do when asked to try and salvage a tilt, a contest in which it trailed by double digits in a hostile environment.
Fast or slow, east or west, regular season or playoff, the last 20 teams to beat a Manning squad all had one thing in common: He made them work for it. The victors averaged 30.5 points in their efforts.
It’s a high bar. Mile High, now that you mention it.
Smith will have better days. If he doesn’t, this Chiefs team will be one-and-done in January. Again.
Sunday isn’t completely No. 11’s fault. But it is his burden. The rematch on Dec. 1, even more so.
There’s no shame here. But in the AFC West, there is a race. And now the other guy is sitting squarely, comfortably, in the catbird seat.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.