The Broncos finally found a way to win at home Sunday, rallying past Kansas City 24-17, but they lost their sixth tailback when bulldozing rookie Peyton Hillis went down with a strained right hamstring.
Bell came in and helped the Broncos (8-5) snap a three-game losing skid at home by rumbling for 52 yards on 11 carries, including a crucial 28-yard run on Denver's game-winning, 95-yard touchdown drive.
Cornerback Dre' Bly then stuffed Kansas City quarterback Tyler Thigpen a yard shy of the end zone on fourth-and-goal to seal the Broncos' first win at home since Oct 5 and atone for their lopsided loss to the Chiefs (2-11) in September.
The Broncos put themselves on the cusp of ending a three-year playoff drought. They lead second-place San Diego by three games in the middling AFC West.
But even when they win in this topsy-turvy season, they lose.
Hillis had rejuvenated the Broncos' battered backfield after moving over from fullback last month, and his 18-yard touchdown run, his fifth in four games, jump-started the Broncos' comeback from an early 10-0 deficit.
He went to the sideline, however, after he was sandwiched by two defenders while coming down with a leaping first-down catch in the second quarter.
"I think maybe a contusion, maybe something that slight," said Hillis, who rushed eight times for 58 yards and caught one pass for 11 yards before getting hurt.
His coach, Mike Shanahan, wasn't so optimistic.
"Any time it's a hamstring and they come off the field like he did today, normally it's a month at best," Shanahan said. "It didn't look good. I'm hoping it's not quite as bad as I anticipate, but I was not pleased watching him walk off the field."
Bell said the Broncos' run game was in good hands: his.
"I hope Peyton will bounce back, but I feel good being in there doing what I can," said Bell, who spent his first three NFL seasons in Denver. "I'm excited about the opportunity to probably get some more carries."
Jay Cutler said if the Broncos lose another running back, he might have to be the primary ballcarrier himself.
"Might as well at this point. It seems like we have one go down every game," Cutler said. "I don't know the extent of Peyton's injury. But luckily enough we have Tatum. He understands the system, he knows when to cut back."
Center Casey Wiegmann isn't worried about the Broncos being down to their seventh-string running back.
"We just have to play well up front," he said. "As long as all five of us stay healthy, we'll be OK."
Cutler completed 32 of 40 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to Brandon Marshall, including a 6-yarder for the winner early in the fourth quarter when he caught a bubble screen at the line of scrimmage and plowed his way through linebacker Rocky Boiman at the 2.
That score gave Denver its first lead at home in 13 quarters.
Thigpen promptly drove the Chiefs all the way to the Broncos 5, where his draw on fourth-and-goal was snuffed out by cornerback Dre' Bly at the 1.
"I knew the ball had to come out quick," Bly said. "If it didn't, he was going to tuck it and run."
Thigpen said the play was designed to go to tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had five catches for 73 yards.
"Tony was getting mauled and I just decided to take off," Thigpen said. "It was me one-on-one and I came up a yard short."
Cutler's only bad pass all day was returned by rookie nickel back Maurice Leggett for a 27-yard touchdown in the first quarter that gave Kansas City an early 10-0 lead.
- Denver also lost WR Brandon Stokley (ankle) and LB Mario Haggan (knee) and Kansas City lost C Rudy Niswanger (knee).
- For the first time since 1995, the Broncos have gone three games without allowing a sack.
- The Chiefs are 0-8 all-time at Invesco Field.