Rivalry Road Trip, Part 2 (Denver): Climb Ev’ry Mountain


This is as good a week as any to head for the Rockies.

The Chiefs and their fans need to breathe in some thin mountain air and clear their heads. After two days of gloom, doom, and petty recriminations, it’s time to climb out of this black hole—and keep climbing. The Broncos are waiting, and another rivalry road game is just what we all require to help us refocus.

Yes, the team should still be shamed by that mess they left in Oakland, which painfully and yet mercifully ended when Sebastian Janikowski set down his sideline refreshment long enough to trot out in his saggy spandex and chip a shot through the uprights. (Watching him “jump” in celebration and almost lose his balance on the way down from his seven-inch vertical offered a welcome wisp of comic relief in an otherwise devastating moment.)

Congratulations to the Oakland Raiders. They hung in there, made slightly fewer mistakes than the Chiefs (well, technically, a few more, according to the season-high penalty count), made a couple fantastic plays at the end, got the win, and “tightened” the divisional standings. And, taking all that into account, if Commissioner Roger Goodell declared an end to the regular season right now, here’s what each team would be awarded:

To the Kansas City Chiefs: The AFC West Championship and a playoff game at home.

To the Oakland Raiders: Nothing.

Let me explain what that means, not because anyone needs me to, but because this is cathartic: At the moment, the Raiders’ 5-4 record is worth just as much as an 0-9 record (actually, less, because 0-9 would give them the edge over 0-8 Buffalo for the top draft pick). Sure, they are now in a better position than at, say, 4-5—and the Chiefs would be much more relaxed at 6-2—but the Raiders haven’t secured anything, while the Chiefs still control their own destiny.

For that reason, the game at Denver is more important than the one just played in Oakland. We’ve been so caught up with the Raiders, I think, not just because they broke our hearts in one game, but because they’ve stolen a bit of our thunder: hey, we’re the ones who should be getting credit for exceeding expectations. Or maybe that loss stings all the more because the Chiefs, bad as they’ve been recently, are still unaccustomed to losing in Oakland.

Denver is the antidote to both distractions. Let us not forget that in more recent years (and not-so-recent years), it is the Broncos who have been our true tormentors.* Before last year’s season-ending surprise coming-out party (with your hosts, Derrick Johnson and Jamaal Charles), the Chiefs had lost eight in a row at Denver, getting doubled up 242-121 in the process. (In other words, coming into this year, the Chiefs were 7-2 at Oakland and 1-8 at Denver. Now, which game should we have circled on the schedule?)

*Of course, the sting of the loss at Oakland is worth holding onto, because revenge is a dish best served cold—as in really cold, on a January day in Arrowhead Stadium. One of the benefits of the NFL’s home-and-away division schedule (unlike in college football) is the opportunity for same-season payback. I have already marked January 2 as the day of redemption (yeah, yeah, yeah—it’s also my anniversary).

We cannot underestimate these Broncos, just because they are 2-6 (2-5 in the U.S.) and having a pretty miserable season—almost as bad as the one the Chiefs had last year, and the year before that. (And, okay, the year before that.) As Patrick already reported, the odds-makers still think that when all the scoring is done on Sunday, the Broncos will have one more point than the Chiefs.

That disrespect should be enough incentive, but if you’re like me, you might still be having a little more trouble getting up for this game. As I posited last week, hatred (the sports kind) is grounded in familiarity: I have to know you to know that I don’t like you. And I’ll admit, I don’t know much about these Broncos. They’ve been very quiet, it seems, on and off the field. I scanned this past weekend’s scores and couldn’t even find them—for a split second, I thought, Wow! Are they even in the NFL anymore? (Yes, I know—it was their bye week.)

So in case Kyle Orton’s career 79.7 passer rating doesn’t make your blood boil, I’ll leave you with a fun, motivating exercise to try at home: Write out these names (or print out their photos) and stick them around the house where you’ll see them all week—or, better yet, have a loved one or friend or random passerby tape them up where you’ll see them but not expect them: John Elway. Mike Shanahan. Shannon Sharpe. Bill Romanowski (he was a Bronco for years before he became a Raider). Steve Atwater. Ed McCaffrey. Lin Elliot (not a Bronco, but—come on, now you’re really mad, aren’t you?).

Or this. Last week, a lot of you out there seemed to love (or rather, hate) the idea of focusing on a particularly painful date in a rivalry’s history, so here’s another one: January 4, 1998. In the only-ever postseason meeting between these two teams, the Broncos used the top-seeded Chiefs and Arrowhead as a springboard on the way to their first Super Bowl championship. I happened to be in Israel for work at the time and watched the game, alone, at the home of a friend who had satellite TV, while he and his family slept soundly in other rooms. When it was over, at 3 a.m. local time, I had to let myself out quietly and make my way back to where I was staying through the deserted streets. I suffered alone, as there wasn’t anyone within miles who could truly understand the specific kind of anguish and shame I was feeling in the face of defeat delivered by sworn enemies. And I was in the Middle East.

I expect to feel much better after this weekend. It won’t be easy—the recent history of this rivalry would indicate that the matchup, whether at Arrowhead or INVESCO Mile High, is all the more dangerous for the visitor when they are the team with more to play for. But for the first time in years, the Chiefs are in control of their own ascension. All they have to do this Sunday, and every Sunday, is win one game. Climb every mountain.

What do you all think? Am I appropriately optimistic, or just Rocky Mountain High?