DENVER — You saw it, I saw it, millions of people watching ESPN saw it.
On a crisp, classic, autumn night inside a growling Mile High, the type of atmosphere that’s chewed up and spit out Hall of Fame quarterbacks many times over, the future of the NFL arrived.
And the Broncos brought a Super Soaker to a UFC fight. While Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes was lifting a faulty roster to a 27-23 triumph in front of 76,456 rowdies, Broncos quarterback Case Keenum was flipping a would-be game-winning touchdown pass too high and too far from reach.
“The one over DT’s head?” Keenum said afterward.
Yes, the one over Demaryius Thomas' head. The one that had Mile High grumbling, and not from the Rockies' loss to the Dodgers earlier in the day. The one that Mahomes connects on 9.9 times out of 10, judging by the aerobatic display the 23-year-old wunderkind put on for the rest of the game.
This isn’t to point the blame on Keenum, who’s been just about what most folks expected in a 2-2 start. What, you expect a guy to turn down $36 million when John Elway says it's yours?
But after seeing Mahomes flash a 60-minute trailer about the feature film he’s about to release over the next decade or so, it’s OK to concede the Broncos made a mistake by not drafting a young quarterback with the No. 5 pick in the NFL draft last April. Bradley Chubb looks like a keeper, the kind of pass-rushing talent that can succeed Von Miller when Vonnie Football says it’s all over or moves on to full-time chicken farming.
But there's no comparison for a quarterback that can carry a franchise. Those years between Elway and Peyton Manning mostly showed as much. Now the Chiefs have one of those guys.
“We’ve got to get him down, plain and simple. He’s pretty fast, run all day, buy time, especially to the right, deep, then throw the ball 40 yards,” Miller said of Mahomes, who completed 28 of 45 passes for 304 yards. "He's a great quarterback.”
All those mistakes sure to fill sports radio on Tuesday? Makes for good smack talk, but it’s those kinds of mistakes a big-time quarterback covers up. The backed-up yards from a Garett Bolles holding penalty? NBD. The DT drop that crushed the opening drive? Next snap, please.
Meanwhile, Vance Joseph and the Broncos brought a terrific gameplan and the playmakers to see it through. They built a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter. The defense played like it's won a championship ring or something, and Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman became the first Broncos rookies to rush for 60-plus yards and a touchdown in the same game.
And it still wasn’t good enough to beat a Chiefs team that has serious holes after Mahomes. But he’s enough. His kind is enough. There’s no guarantee the Broncos would have hit on a guy like Mahomes. I thought they should draft the best player available, too, and that was Chubb. I was wrong. The Broncos are treading water and hoping for a 2015 repeat until they find one.
You saw it, I saw it, millions of people watching ESPN saw it. Over 24 hours the four-letter network broadcast a Nuggets game, a Rockies game and a Broncos game. Perhaps in the next 24 hours ESPN will realize there was a Colorado team also participating in each one. Is the network so hard up it must sell Lakers, Dodgers and Chiefs tickets to cover costs?
What seemed to hurt the most in the Broncos locker room was the realization they gave their best shot, and the Chiefs still came in and left with a fourth consecutive win at Mile High.
The '18 Chiefs are setting up their cursed fanbase for another painful January. In the time you were reading this, another running back gained 12 yards and another wideout found himself wide open. But the K.C. franchise has the most difficult piece to track down, and those usually pay off in the end.
“Special player,” safety Darian Stewart said.
For all the pressure the Broncos defense directed at Mahomes, it sacked him only once. As the players dressed while wearing long looks, one defender said: “I need our (offensive) line.”
“This is a game — with how we were playing and what we were doing out there — we should have won,” said Broncos linebacker and Kansas City native Shane Ray.
OK, so the delay-of-game penalty that wasn’t called. Big whiff by the officiating crew. With the game clock clearly on “0,” Mahomes took the snap, escaped and zipped a 35-yarder to Demetrius Harris. The Broncos on the sideline and the crowd leveled its venom at the refs.
“It was 100-percent sure (a penalty),” linebacker Shaq Barrett said.
But that’s the little stuff a great quarterback can overcome. The Chiefs covered up a second-and-30 just like that.
“It’s a tough one,” linebacker Todd Davis said.
You saw it, I saw it, millions watching ESPN saw it. Monday night, the Chiefs brought to town the best 20-something in the NFL. The Broncos left with the realization they played their most complete game in over a calendar year — and it wasn’t good enough to hold off Mahomes.
Until they locate something like that, if not that, get used to the new sheriff in the AFC West.