It’s a dark day in Broncos Country.
Not only is the team heading into the offseason after three-straight losing seasons, extending their non-playoff streak to four years, but fans now have to deal with one of the franchise’s biggest rivals being atop the football world. Last night, the Chiefs came from behind to beat the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, returning the Lombardi Trophy to Kansas City for the first time in 50 years.
Talk about kicking a fan base when its down. One of the only things the Broncos could hang their hat on during their down years was the fact that the team’s AFC West foes hadn’t won a Super Bowl in ages. It had been since the 1969 season for the Chiefs and ’83 campaign for the Raiders, while the Chargers had never won a title.
In the interim, the Broncos had hoisted three trophies. That was a feather in the fan base’s cap, no matter what the current standings might read.
That angle is now gone, at least when it comes to the Chiefs. But that’s not the main reason why it’s a gloomy day in Denver. There are a lot of long faces around the Mile High City because what was on display last night in Miami could be the norm for quite some time.
Patrick Mahomes walked away with Most Valuable Player honors, leading a fourth-quarter comeback to earn the award. At just 24 years old, Kansas City’s quarterback isn’t going away anytime soon; if anything, he’ll probably get a little better in the next few seasons.
That’s a sobering thought for the rest of the division. It certainly is in Denver.
This season, in the two head-to-head matchups between the teams, the Chiefs dominated the Broncos. They won 30-6 in Denver, despite not having Mahomes for most of the game, and then rolled to a 23-3 victory in Kansas City. A combined 53-9 score doesn’t suggest that the two franchises are anywhere close to being on the same level.
That fact has caused plenty of well-meaning people to suggest that the Broncos need to find a way to compete with Mahomes. It was a main topic of conversation during Super Bowl week. Otherwise, Denver is doomed to looking up in the standings to the quarterback and his team for the next decade.
On some level, that idea makes sense. He’s the best player, on the best team in the AFC West, so finding an antidote for his playmaking ability seems like the only way to remain competitive in the coming years.
The problem with that idea is that it’s impossible. That’s not to say that Mahomes is a flawless player; he’s not, as evidenced through the first three quarters of the Super Bowl. But there really isn’t a formula for beating him.
Houston thought they had a recipe for success, being able to match Mahomes great play for great play with their own young quarterback. But even DeShaun Watson wasn’t enough for the Texans to hold onto a 24-0 first quarter lead, as the Chiefs came from behind to win 51-31.
The next week, Tennessee thought they had the formula. They would pound the rock right at Kansas City’s defense, giving Derrick Henry the football over and over again, just as they did in road wins over New England and Baltimore. It worked for a while, but a 17-7 lead eventually turned into 35-24 victory for the Chiefs.
And last night, San Francisco had their game plan dialed in. They were going to slow the game down, keep Mahomes on the sidelines and make Kansas City burn a lot of clock even when they did score. It worked for a while, as the 49ers led 20-10 in the fourth quarter; the Chiefs would go on to win 31-20.
Denver’s not going to match Kansas City score for score. They don’t have a big, bruising running back. And they don’t boast the interior pass rush to harass Mahomes the way San Francisco did, at least for most of Sunday’s game.
Instead, the Broncos need to figure out what kind of team they want to be and then go about adding players that are a great fit for that scheme. They need to not worry about the Chiefs, instead figuring out how to build a roster that creates problems during the other 14 games on the schedule.
That’s what the Niners did. They didn’t get caught up in trying to build a team to stop Russell Wilson, even though the Seahawks quarterback is as on par with Mahomes as anyone in the league. Instead, they built a team that can run the football and create pressure on defense. Every draft pick and free-agent signing was added to fit that type of team.
As a result, San Francisco was able to compete with Seattle. They even forced the former kings of the NFC West to adjust to them at times.
NFL rosters change in a hurry. Six years ago, Wilson was winning a Super Bowl while riding the coattails of a great defense. Then, he got back to another one because of a stellar running game. Now, all of the stars of those teams are gone, other than the quarterback.
The Chiefs will endure the same fate. Once they have to pay Mahomes, they’ll have to make tough decisions about other players on the roster. Will Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce stay? Can the offensive line remain intact? Does the defense retain players like Chris Jones, Tyrann Mathieu and others?
By the time the Broncos have built the roster they need around Drew Lock, Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, Dalton Risner, Bradley Chubb and other young stars, Kansas City will look a lot different than it does today. That’s why it would be a mistake to worry about just the Chiefs.
Go build a great roster, regardless of what’s going on in Kansas City. Patrick Mahomes is a great player, one who figures to give the Broncos, the AFC West and the league fits for years to come. But trying to beat one player, who only appears on the schedule twice per year, is an exercise in futility.