by Scott Kacsmar
So does it take Andy Reid and the Kansas City Chiefs to give us a compelling Thursday night contest? Last night's game was ugly and memorable, which might also be the way we describe Peyton Manning's 2015 season in the future. It was an unforgettable night for Manning as he became just the second quarterback in NFL history to reach 70,000 passing yards. It was the 19th time he led a team to a win after trailing by at least 12 points. This may have been the last time we watched him lead a game-tying drive in the closing moments on his way to a 42nd fourth-quarter comeback, extending his record. Most of Twitter was ready for Manning to retire in the first half, but that's why they play 60 minutes. This one took many twists and turns before a finish that we rarely ever witness in the NFL: the stunning game-winning return touchdown in the final minute.
We'll recap the rest of Week 2's close games in Clutch Encounters on Tuesday as usual, but here's a special look at a special game.
Denver Broncos 31 at Kansas City Chiefs 24
Type: 4QC and non-offensive game-winning score
Largest Fourth-Quarter Deficit: 7 (24-17)
Head Coach: Gary Kubiak (14-35 at 4QC and 20-36 overall 4QC/GWD record)
Quarterback: Peyton Manning (42-50 at 4QC and 54-55 overall 4QC/GWD record)
The Denver Story: The Sheriff Took a Shotgun to Gary Kubiak's Offense
The 2015 Broncos and 1992 Broncos (Hey, John Elway!) are the only teams in NFL history to start 2-0 despite not rushing for more than 70 yards in either game. Well, it sure helps to have a defense come up with timely turnovers. That 1992 Denver team only finished 8-8, by the way, including a shocking win over the Chiefs with two touchdowns in the final minutes.
Elway and Gary Kubiak wanted to give Manning a great running game so he would not have to throw the ball so much, keeping him fresh for the playoffs. That has failed miserably so far. Manning has thrown at least 40 passes in both games and is taking a lot more sacks (seven so far) and hits than usual due to the poor offensive line.
For this one not to get out of hand, the Broncos needed to run the ball much better. Despite some great pass-rushing talent, the 2014 Chiefs only ranked 26th in DVOA against the run, and ranked 17th in Week 1 against a Houston team without Arian Foster. C.J. Anderson had a toe injury, but started anyway. He picked up 14 yards on the first play of the game for a great start, but only gained 13 yards on his final 11 carries. Injured and completely ineffective? It's like Montee Ball switched faces with Anderson and is still starting for Denver. The running game never materialized for Denver, finishing with 61 yards on 22 carries. Only five carries gained more than 3 yards. The backs aren't even factoring into the passing game, with just one catch for 2 yards on two targets in this game.
Manning hasn't been sacked at least three times in consecutive games since his second (Atlanta) and third (Houston) games with Denver in 2012. If you read Ben Muth's piece and watched Denver's first game against Baltimore, you've seen that even left guard Evan Mathis is not up to par on this line, exacerbating the struggles of inexperienced players and right tackle Ryan Harris.
We detailed the differences between Manning's offense and Gary Kubiak's offense in Football Outsiders Almanac 2015. It only took until Week 2 for this to clash, with Manning seeming to win that argument. Oh, the game started in Kubiak fashion with Manning often under center, but the results were once again not there. Manning took two sacks in the first quarter from under center. Only five of Denver's 22 runs were from the shotgun, and those five plays gained 25 yards (three successes). Consider that under Kubiak, the 2014 Ravens had just nine shotgun runs all year (Denver had 212). He needs to budge on this as the Broncos need to be able to run more offense with Manning in shotgun. Manning does not seem to have the time to set his feet and throw properly when coming out from under center.
Denver was almost 50/50 on Manning dropbacks from center versus shotgun early, but after the pick-six by rookie Marcus Peters dropped Denver into a 14-0 hole in the second quarter, we saw the old Manning offense take over in the no-huddle. From that point, Manning had 31 of his last 37 dropbacks in shotgun and the offense was much more productive.
Without that change down 14-0, the Broncos may have been embarrassed the way the Patriots were at Arrowhead Stadium last season. While Manning still flirted with ugly passes and was lucky to not throw multiple interceptions, when he was running his own offense we still saw glimpses of what has made him so successful for so long. The Chiefs contested passes very well, but Manning had pinpoint accuracy on some of his throws with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders each catching eight passes.
Until the offensive line improves and/or Manning gets more control, this is the kind of offense Denver will have to play against any competent defense. The short throws are not gaining any yards after the catch (YAC). In Week 1, the Broncos were last in the league with 2.7 YAC per catch. That average was even worse in Kansas City at just 2.2 YAC per catch, the lowest yet in Manning's 55 games with Denver. One promising thing is Manning only had six failed completions on Thursday night, down from the 10 against Baltimore and absurd mark of 15 against the Colts in the playoffs.
Defenses will continue to cheat on the short throws the way Peters read the pick-six as long as Manning continues missing the long throws. He again overthrew just about every deep pass on Thursday night, which is what we saw against Baltimore on Sunday and against the Colts in January's playoff loss. In those three games, Manning is 1-of-17 on passes thrown more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, including a 0-for-8 mark this season. He seems to be putting all the strength he has left into his throws, which is sacrificing the accuracy. This does not sound like a promising formula for a long season at all, but Denver has time to fix things after a fortunate 2-0 start.
The Kansas City Story: So That's Why Your Wideouts Don't Score Touchdowns
You have to go back to 2013 to find the last time the Chiefs threw a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. Of course the 2014 Chiefs threw six touchdowns to players lined up in a wide receiver position, but those players were actually tight ends and running backs, so it does not technically count.
How does this happen? Just look at the Chiefs' opening drive that had the offense in first-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Alex Smith threw a low screen pass to Jamaal Charles for a 3-yard loss. He missed a wide-open Travis Kelce on second down in the end zone, choosing to throw a pass to Jeremy Maclin at the line of scrimmage that never had a shot to score. On third down, Smith hit a swing pass to Charles, hoping he could run it in from the 11-yard line. You know, it is legal to throw into the end zone here, or at least throw a pass that's not horizontal. Charles broke one tackle, but also fumbled the ball for the first huge turnover of the game.
Denver's defense was aggressive almost to the point of stupidity with four personal fouls in the first half, but the attacking style also led to a five-takeaway night (plus four sacks) that really helped win this game.
The Chiefs picked a silly time to get aggressive. Leading 14-7 with just 2:31 in the first half and Denver out of timeouts, the Chiefs threw a deep pass instead of running the clock to the two-minute warning. Did I mention the Chiefs deferred and were going to get the ball to start the third quarter? Smith then threw a worse pass that Aqib Talib read perfectly for an interception, setting up Manning at the 15 where he would cash in to tie the game. In classic Andy Reid fashion, he didn't even use his last timeout, allowing Manning to take the clock under 50 seconds after the touchdown. The Chiefs called two runs with 47 seconds left to go to halftime.
We know Smith is extremely conservative, so it's a real head-scratcher why the Chiefs got aggressive with throwing before the half. The second half was very tight, and the Chiefs were unable to convert a third down in the entire game (0-for-7). In fact, Kansas City is 3-of-20 on third down this season. Smith's unwillingness to even try throwing close to the first-down marker is again having an impact.
Discussing Smith in the Kansas City chapter of FOA 2015, we introduced a stat we called "Air Minus Need Differential." We have since dumped the convoluted name for something simpler: Air Less Expected, or ALEX for short. This metric looks at how far the quarterback is throwing the ball relative to how many yards he needs for a first down. When Smith threw that swing pass five yards behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-5, that is minus-10 ALEX. Here is a table we used in FOA 2015 to highlight just how ridiculously conservative Smith is on third down since 2011 compared to his peers. (This is the table that didn't print correctly in physical copies of the book; sorry about that.) Keep in mind Smith also has the highest sack rate on third down -- he took one on Thursday night, too -- so if he's not firing too short, he's afraid to even pull the trigger.
Figure 1. ALEX: Air Less Expected, Third Downs (2011-2014)
In the previous four seasons, Smith's average third-down pass was thrown 1.7 yards short of the first-down marker. The average quarterback is about 1.4 yards beyond the sticks. So far in 2015, Smith's ALEX is minus-10.2 on 13 passes. He has only thrown one pass at or beyond the sticks on third down.
There was a play in the fourth quarter that the Chiefs probably wish was thrown behind the line of scrimmage again. Tied at 17, Smith had the go-ahead field goal in his back pocket on third-and-10 at the Denver 17. Instead he tried to get off a deeper throw and was hit in motion, leading to an air ball that was easily intercepted by Chris Harris with 6:27 left.
Smith got the ball back and only had to make one throw to Kelce for 29 yards as the Denver defense had some issues with giving up YAC to the tight ends. Smith nearly fell after taking a snap, but got the ball to Knile Davis for an 8-yard touchdown run with 2:27 left. Kansas City led 24-17 and appeared to be in good shape in this sloppy affair.
The Game-Tying Drive
Manning had 2:27, a timeout and 80 yards to go for the game-tying touchdown. Of course CBS' Phil Simms had to remark that Manning has been in this situation "hundreds of times" in his career. Actually, if we are talking about starting a drive in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter in a touchdown-or-bust one-score game, then Manning has been in that situation 25 times now to be exact. That includes two drives where he had less than 20 seconds to create a miracle, but everything else was at least 55 seconds, including last year's historic drive in Seattle to force overtime after trailing 20-12.
|Peyton Manning: Down 4-8 Points in Final 3:00 of Fourth Quarter|
|IND||9/6/1998||MIA||L 24-15||0||1:32||Own 4||8||Interception|
|IND||11/1/1998||NE||L 21-16||22||1:25||Own 9||5||Interception|
|IND||11/1/1998||NE||L 21-16||1||2:31||Own 39||5||Interception|
|IND||11/28/1998||@||BAL||L 38-31||58||2:49||Own 18||7||Interception|
|IND||12/20/1998||@||SEA||L 27-23||66||1:57||Own 27||4||Downs|
|IND||12/27/1998||CAR||L 27-19||0||0:55||Opp 43||8||Interception|
|IND||9/10/2000||OAK||L 38-31||30||2:49||Own 36||7||Interception|
|IND||10/14/2001||OAK||L 23-18||26||2:22||Own 20||5||Interception|
|IND||12/2/2001||@||BAL||L 39-27||0||1:47||Own 26||4||Interception|
|IND||9/15/2002||MIA||L 21-13||78||2:15||Own 16||8||End of Game|
|IND||10/27/2002||@||WAS||L 26-21||8||0:18||Own 37||5||Fumble (T.Walters lateral attempt)|
|IND||11/3/2002||TEN||L 23-15||7||1:29||Own 8||8||Downs|
|IND||10/6/2003||@||TB||W 38-35 OT||85||1:41||Own 15||7||Touchdown|
|IND||11/9/2003||@||JAC||L 28-23||28||1:08||Own 34||5||Interception|
|IND||11/30/2003||NE||L 38-34||46||2:57||Opp 48||4||Downs|
|IND||1/18/2004||@||NE||L 24-14||0||2:01||Own 20||7||Downs|
|IND||10/1/2006||@||NYJ||W 31-28||61||2:20||Own 39||4||Touchdown|
|IND||1/13/2008||SD||L 28-24||5||1:30||Own 32||4||Downs|
|IND||9/21/2008||JAC||L 23-21||77||2:33||Own 23||6||Touchdown|
|IND||11/15/2009||NE||W 35-34||29||2:00||Opp 29||6||Touchdown|
|IND||10/3/2010||@||JAC||L 31-28||65||2:09||Own 35||7||Touchdown|
|IND||12/5/2010||DAL||L 38-35 OT||81||2:38||Own 19||7||Touchdown|
|DEN||9/23/2012||HOU||L 31-25||36||0:20||Own 14||6||Fumble (lateral-filled play)|
|DEN||9/21/2014||@||SEA||L 26-20 OT||80||0:59||Own 20||8||Touchdown|
|DEN||9/17/2015||@||KC||W 31-24||80||2:27||Own 20||7||Touchdown|
Manning was intercepted on eight of his first nine attempts in this situation, all back in 1998-2001. Even though his team only went on to win four of these games, Manning engineered the touchdown drive eight times, including six of his last seven. The only recent failure was a hopeless situation against Houston in 2012 where a fumbled lateral ended the game.
These drives rarely work out even for the greats, but Manning looked vintage on this one. Thomas came up with three big catches, including one on third-and-8 where he looked like Shaq calling for the ball down low from Derek Fisher (also old). From the 19-yard line Denver got the look it wanted with a natural rub to free up Jordan Norwood, but the young receiver dropped the ball to bring up third-and-10. By the way, the fact that 2014 second-round pick Cody Latimer can't even see the field over Norwood is a pretty negative statement about Latimer.
Sanders, who was a machine on third down this week, beat Jamell Fleming with a little stutter move and Manning had the strike for the 19-yard touchdown with 36 seconds left. Brandon McManus made the 33-yard extra point and we started to think about overtime.
The Game-Deciding Fumble Touchdown
With 35 seconds and one timeout left at your own 20, you probably want to think about overtime when your quarterback isn't known to hit plays down the field. John Fox was basically crucified in Denver for having Manning take a knee in this situation in a certain playoff game years ago, but it's not very favorable to getting a score. The new overtime system is a lot fairer now too.
But before we could even process that the unthinkable happened. Charles, who had such a great rushing night, took the carry and was stripped for his second fumble of the night. Any fumble here is disastrous this deep in your own end, but Bradley Roby was able to pick up the ball, juke by Smith and return it for a go-ahead touchdown with 27 seconds left.
Is this the Miracle at the Meadowlands of our generation? This was a run that made more sense than that one, but it was also a star player doing it instead of a scrub like Joe Pisarcik botching a handoff. It's one thing to see Brian Westbrook or DeSean Jackson return late punts to win a game, but something about a fumble being returned that just enhances the craziness (and randomness) of the moment. It's something that's not planned like the Music City Miracle.
I wish I could provide everyone with a table of game-winning return touchdowns in the final two minutes, but time data is hard to come by for older games. Oddly enough, the closest thing that comes to mind so far is a 1995 game won by the Chiefs over Houston. With 28 seconds left in a 13-13 game, Todd McNair ripped off a 17-yard run, only to fumble at his own 32. Mark Collins picked the ball up and returned it for a 34-yard touchdown to win the game with 15 seconds left. I'll assume that wasn't played on SportsCenter last night.
It wouldn't be a true TNF recap without a great GIF. Here is Smith after the fumble:
Not the Final Chapter
The Broncos have set an NFL record with their 13th consecutive division road win. Peyton Manning teams improve to 14-1 against the Chiefs, 8-1 against Andy Reid and 7-0 against Alex Smith. Offenses led by Smith have only scored more than 17 points in one of those games. This may have been the wildest chapter yet, but it is unlikely to be the last as the Chiefs play in Denver in Week 10. However, if the Chiefs couldn't finish with a 14-point lead at home on a short week with Denver still working out the kinks offensively, then it is hard to see this team overtaking the Broncos as long as Manning is there.
Like a great horror villain, Manning doesn't stay dead even when you think you've killed any chance of a sequel. On Thursday night that gloved hand rose out of the ground once again, and no matter how hard Kubiak tried to pull him back to the center, this 39-year-old corpse proved why he is the master of the no-huddle offense.
With a great defense in place, Denver is a consistent offense away from restoring the faith that this team can reach its goal of a championship. The Chiefs continue to be left wanting -- a team just good enough to break your heart.
Fourth-quarter comeback wins: 6
Game-winning drives: 4 (plus two non-offensive game-winning scores)
Games with 4QC opportunity: 10/17 (58.8 percent)
10+ point comeback wins (any point in the game): 4
Historic data on fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives can be found at Pro-Football-Reference. Screen caps come from NFL Game Pass.