The Denver Broncos lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime Sunday night after Chiefs kicker Cairo Santos banked in a 34-yard game-winning field goal off an upright on the last possible play of the game.
It was an incredibly hard-fought game between two entrenched division rivals with similar builds — plodding, ball control offenses and aggressive, physical defenses.
But the Broncos should have won. They outgained the Chiefs 464 yards to 273, and were better in almost every phase of the game outside of one turnover and a relinquished punt return for a touchdown.
The Broncos made two mistakes that, in the moment, were easy to overlook, but they gave the Chiefs the opportunities they needed to win Sunday’s game by a razor-thin margin. To do the right thing, the Broncos would have had to act against every instinct they have as players and coaches.
3:00 left in regulation — Bennie Fowler scores a 76-yard touchdown when he should have gotten down
The Broncos took over possession from the Chiefs on their own 4-yard line holding a 17-16 lead with 5:37 remaining. Quarterback Trevor Siemian made a high-pressure throw to A.J. Derby on third-and-11 to convert a first down and give the Broncos some breathing room away from their own end zone.
The Chiefs were running out of time. They called their second timeout after stuffing a run on first down, then used their last timeout after Siemian scrambled to bring up a pivotal third-and-2.
If the Broncos had simply gotten a first down, then they may have been able to run the clock out on the Chiefs. There was 3:12 remaining, and other than the two-minute warning, there would be no more stoppages in play as long as the Broncos stayed in bounds.
Instead, Bennie Fowler got behind the Chiefs defense down the left sideline and did this:
Normally, 76-yard touchdowns are worth celebrating, but the play gave the ball right back to the Chiefs with a one-score deficit intact. A methodical Chiefs offense ended up needing all the time it was given. Alex Smith hit Tyreek Hill on a 3-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining. The pass was initially ruled short of the goal line but was overturned upon review.
The Chiefs promptly converted the 2-point conversion to tie the game with only enough time left in regulation for Siemian to take a knee and send the game to overtime. If Fowler had simply taken a knee at the 1-yard line, the Broncos would have been able to drain the clock before padding their lead, leaving the Chiefs virtually no chance to score.
1:08 left in overtime — Brandon McManus misses 62-yard field goal attempt
It’s hard to blame the Broncos for not playing for a tie. In the minds of many coaches and players, a tie may be even more frustrating than a loss. But a tie is undoubtedly a better result than a loss when it comes to division and playoff standings.
In this instance, the Broncos went for the win when they should have punted. Head coach Gary Kubiak called on kicker Brandon McManus to attempt a 62-yard field goal after the Broncos drove to the Chiefs’ 48-yard line. McManus’ career long is 57 yards, and if his attempt hadn’t gone wide left, it would have tied for the third-longest make in NFL history.
Instead, a low-percentage kick missed, and the Chiefs found themselves in great field position, just shy of midfield. They drove 32 yards in four plays to set up Santos’ game-winner. They needed every single one of those yards to win. And by “every single one” I mean that if the Chiefs had snapped from the Broncos 17-yard line instead of the 16, Santos might have missed the kick completely.
After the game, Broncos players came to Kubiak’s defense.
“I’m 100 percent behind Kube there (going for the 62-yd OT FG) … I wouldn’t just play for the tie either. B-Mac is the man.” - @Millerlite40— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) November 28, 2016
It’s understandable why. The spirit of the game says you should always try to do the things that put points on the board. That means running into the end zone when there’s nothing else in front of you except turf, and going for broke on a long game-winning field goal attempt near the end of a delirious game against a hated rival.
Kubiak was contrite after the game, admitting that “It’s on me” that the Broncos decided to attempt the field goal.
"My thing is we're going to try to win around here and I made that decision and it just didn't work out," Kubiak said. "But I got a lot of confidence in Brandon, a lot of confidence in our football team. That's why I made that decision."
Reckless belief sustains football teams. Kubiak mentions the confidence he has in McManus to hit the kick. To win games, head coaches have to convince their players that they are tougher, stronger, and harder-working than their opponents, even if that isn’t possible. That way, they can overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds they face week in and out playing one of the most physically and mentally taxing sports on Earth.
According to game theory, Kubiak should have conceded the tie. If he had, the Broncos would be in better shape for the playoffs than they are now. The loss not only put them in worse shape to win the division, but knocked them out of the AFC Wild Card for the time being. As things stand, the Dolphins would go to the playoffs as the No. 6 seed over the defending Super Bowl champions.
Playing for a tie would have gone against everything Kubiak likely preaches to his team, however. Implicitly, he would have been telling his kicker that he doesn’t have faith in him, and telling his offense and defense that it’s okay to compromise on winning.
Kubiak made a mistake, and so did Fowler, but in the heat of the moment it’s hard to blame them for doing what they’ve been hard-wired to do.