Broncos punch in, clock K.C. Defense good till end, tipping end-zone pass to preserve 14-10 win

Wild card trumps AFC ace

Fake field goal comes back to haunt Chiefs

January 05, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- During the final, frantic four minutes of yesterday's AFC divisional playoff game, the members of Denver's defense knew an excellent day's work could have been erased, leaving the Broncos to spend another off-season pondering high expectations gone sour.

But the Broncos, who suffered a stunning home playoff loss to Jacksonville last January, then spent last week being reminded of how they had blown a divisional title by failing to beat a tough team on the road, stared down their fiercest rivals and sent a chilling jolt through frozen Arrowhead Stadium.

Once Denver cornerback Darrien Gordon batted away a fourth-down, end-zone pass from Kansas City quarterback Elvis Grbac with 12 seconds left, putting the finishing touch on the Broncos' best defensive outing of the season and closing out a tense, 14-10 victory, Denver finally could rest.

All the Broncos (14-4) need to do now is one-up themselves by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium in Sunday's AFC championship game.

Beating the Chiefs at home, where Denver had blown a 13-point lead seven weeks ago and eventually lost on the game's final play -- yielding the AFC West title in the process -- has the Broncos feeling they can turn the tables on the Steelers and get to the Super Bowl the hardest way.

"It's so hard to win on the road, but it was our time to rise," Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski said of Kansas City's last desperate drive. "We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'Hey, if [the Chiefs] don't score, we win the game.' I wanted them to throw the ball my way. To win the way we did is awesome."

For the Chiefs, it was an equally excruciating way to lose.

Start with coach Marty Schottenheimer. For the second time in three years, his 13-3 team failed to win a playoff game at home as the AFC's top seed. For the third time, dating to back-to-back (1986-87) AFC title game defeats when he ran the Cleveland Browns, he failed to overcome his nemesis, Denver quarterback John Elway, in the playoffs.

"It's hard to put into words our frustration and disappointment," said Schottenheimer, who is 5-11 in playoff games. "I do think this football team gave every ounce of what they had to give. The coaching staff and organization did. I trust that's good enough. I can't argue with [the critics] right now."

But Grbac did.

"He doesn't play," the quarterback said in Schottenheimer's defense. "Coaches can only do so much. It comes down to the players to make the plays."

The Chiefs could point to a number of costly shortcomings, beginning with an offense that fizzled throughout a punchless first half. Grbac, playing in only his second game after missing six weeks with a broken collarbone, sputtered often in the face of an endless parade of Denver blitzes.

On the defensive side, Kansas City played well enough to win, although critical coverage errors on two blitzes allowed Elway to set up each Broncos touchdown with a huge pass completion.

And special teams, which had been near-magical all year for the Chiefs, came up short. First, there was the missed, 44-yard field-goal attempt by kicker Pete Stoyanovich with 6: 47 left in the first half that left the game scoreless. That marked only his second miss in 28 tries this season, and it followed a holding penalty that nullified Stoyanovich's successful 34-yarder.

Then there was the fake 49-yard field goal that blew up in the Chiefs' faces with 9: 37 left and Denver on top 14-10. Three points there and Kansas City would not have needed a touchdown at the end.

Ultimately, the Chiefs were undone by a combination of Elway, running back Terrell Davis (101 yards on 25 carries), a tenacious Denver defense that allowed just 77 yards rushing and, most notably, poor clock management.

To Kansas City's credit, it forced two punts after punter Louie Aguiar, holding for Stoyanovich, was tackled 3 yards short of a first down after his foiled run.

And to Grbac's credit, he regrouped to play a fine second half (15-for-26, 206 yards, one TD), even giving Kansas City a 10-7 lead after hitting tight end Tony Gonzalez with a 12-yard scoring pass with 12 seconds left in the third quarter. (Nine minutes earlier, Gonzalez also caught a pass beyond the goal line but was ruled out of the end zone.)

But Grbac also used two valuable timeouts early in the second half, leaving the Chiefs in a perilous position -- drive 83 yards with 4: 04 remaining with one timeout.

Grbac nearly pulled it off. With the help of a pass interference call against Denver cornerback Ray Crockett, a 12-yard strike to Lake Dawson on fourth-and-nine, and a huge, 23-yard completion to Andre Rison (eight catches, 110 yards), the Chiefs moved to the Denver 28 with 1: 51 left -- and called their final timeout.

"I chose to use it to become organized," said Schottenheimer.

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