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Broncos rebound, Chiefs regress in wacky AFC West

by | Special to CBSSports.com

DENVER -- At one point in a first half that couldn't go any worse for the Kansas City Chiefs, coach Todd Haley couldn't wave a white flag, so he went with one of the red variety to challenge the latest in what had become a barrage of Denver touchdowns.

The game was delayed, per usual. Referee Mike Carey went under the hood, then emerged with microphone at the ready. But Carey didn't reverse or uphold the scoring catch by the Broncos' Jabar Gaffney as countless officials have done in similar situations over the years. He instead explained the replay system was "inoperable."

If that isn't apropos on a day where nearly nothing works it's hard to know what is.

Denver -- mired in a four-game losing streak and a controversy involving their starting inside linebacker -- battered Kansas City by a 49-29 margin that turned the AFC West race upside down.

Just seven days earlier, the Chiefs (5-4) were on the cusp of taking a 2½ game division lead and were on the verge of possibly becoming the Cinderella story of the 2010 season in the second year of the Scott Pioli/Todd Haley regime.

Now, two losses later, it's anyone's guess which club lands on top in the topsy-turvy West.

Oakland, on its bye week along with San Diego, pulls into a virtual tie with the Chiefs, one game up on the Chargers (4-5). The Broncos, who went from allowing 59 points in their last Invesco Field at Mile High game to scoring 49 two weeks later, are only two back at 3-6.

"We blew a game in Houston. We blew a game in Oakland. We could be way out in front, but it's not what it is," Chiefs center Casey Wiegmann said. "We're tied for the AFC West and we have work to do."

The lopsided nature of Kansas City's loss was disconcerting for a team that prides itself on making consistent strides on its holy-grail journey to become a relevant NFL power after several years of futility.

Denver's bottom-ranked rush offense ran for a season-high 153 yards, behind Knowshon Moreno's first triple-digit individual performance as a pro. Kyle Orton threw four TDs, with Tim Tebow adding another on his first pro pass to go along with a rushing score. The Broncos defense -- starting the game without inside linebacker D.J. Williams, who had his captaincy stripped this week and was fined for a DUI arrest -- ran a Matt Cassel fumble back 75 yards for the unit's first score this season.

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And Kansas City's No. 1 rushing offense never had a chance to trample upon Denver's No. 30-ranked ground defense when the defense allowed touchdowns on five of the first six possessions. The Broncos, who scored a league-low seven points in first quarters this season, had 21 Sunday on their way to a 35-0 advantage.

"A difficult loss and a different loss than what we've had to sustain or potentially overcome this year," Haley said. "I think games like this will test your mettle, test your character, test what you are as men."

And test one's patience.

Haley was pleased by the way his players worked hard from start to finish, scoring 19 second-half points. The sideline demeanor never turned dour, even with a big deficit. Players who were told they could rest declined, not wanting to exit the game early.

But those "positives" were offset by a stunning lack of execution, particularly early, and across the board. The career-best 469 yards and four TDs by Cassel and monster 13-catch, 186-yard, two touchdown effort by Kansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe were merely window dressing, along with 484 total yards.

The Chiefs are now 2-4 in their last six games after a 3-0 start, quickly experiencing hunted status after so many games as the hunter.

"We do have a young team and had some success early," Cassel said. "But looking at the team and where we are, there's isn't a lot of that right now, where we have to deal with success and there's been a letdown. It's more us just trying to make ourselves a better team each and every week and I think the guys have to get back to what we do well."

Before the last two weeks, the Chiefs were a disciplined bunch, with a modicum of penalties and just four turnovers over the first seven games. But Kansas City was assessed 100 yards of penalties in the 23-20 overtime loss to Oakland, including two giveaways. On Sunday, Cassel didn't throw a pick in 53 pass attempts, but his fumble on a hit by Denver's Mario Haggan (one of three sacks for the eighth-year pro) was critical. K.C. had six penalties for 40 yards.

The Chiefs have now lost four straight road games for the first time since falling to Denver, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Philadelphia to close the 2008 season and open '09.

"Right now, we're in the transition process," said Haley, who created a stir postgame by seeming to refuse to shake the hand of Broncos coach Josh McDaniels. "It's hard when you win some games and get into a position where people get excited, which we want, that's a great thing ... But that said, we're in a transition period and we just can't be teased or deceived into anything else other than that we are making process. And if we don't make progress we won't get out of the woods. We won't be able to take that next step, and that next step is becoming a good team.

"We're just not there yet. We've shown that in a couple different ways this year."

Kansas City, playing without Jon McGraw (knee/head) and Kendrick Lewis (hamstring) -- two of its top three safeties -- allowed 452 yards and a 60 percent conversion rate on third down. Orton finished 22 of 34 for 296 yards with his four TD throws -- two to resurgent Brandon Lloyd and one each to Gaffney and Moreno.

"It seemed like we were bleeding from the beginning of the game," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "We just needed one spark and a couple of plays to stop the bleeding. That didn't happen."

The larger question is whether Kansas City can put a tourniquet on its season. Denver, which was trampled on its home field in last year's season-finale by the Chiefs, just might have by rallying together after the Williams incident. A speech last week by Hall of Famer John Elway may have helped as well.

Haley isn't worried about words as much as execution after giving up more points than all but three games in team history, and most since a 54-31 blowout defeat by Buffalo on Nov. 23, 2008. That was part of a 2-14 season that ushered in the new era in K.C. that had everyone so excited until the last two weeks put a damper on things.

"Last week we got beat in overtime. We should have won the game," Wiegmann said. "This week, we get blown out. It's an up-and-down season. That's the NFL and it's the funny part about this game. Hopefully everybody goes back to work this week and gets prepared because there's a lot of good teams coming to play us no matter what."

The Chiefs host Arizona this Sunday and have three more AFC West games left in December and January to determine whether they're contenders or pretenders.

"This is a special group of guys," Haley said. "We're not there yet. But I've got a feeling these guys will not be denied, and this will only be a part of that process."


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