DENVER — Peyton Manning wrapped his tender ankles tightly in white tape, just to make sure they were secure against the league's best pass rush.
Turns out, he had nothing to worry about. The Kansas City Chiefs never got near him.
Manning was well-protected Sunday night, throwing for 323 yards and a touchdown to help the Denver Broncos top the Chiefs 27-17.
The Broncos (9-1) passed their first of three straight big tests and took apart the NFL's last undefeated team.
The Chiefs (9-1) struggled, with their vaunted defense getting almost no pressure on Manning, whose mobility has been hampered by those balky ankles.
"It's always great if your quarterback can play and not get hit," receiver Demaryius Thomas said.
The Denver win was Part I of this critical AFC West matchup. The rematch is in two weeks at Arrowhead Stadium.
Sure, the Broncos kept Manning clean, but they were hardly perfect. And the Chiefs made it competitive against the high-scoring Broncos, holding them two touchdowns below their 41.2-point scoring average.
Asked if the Chiefs in essence shut down the Broncos, Thomas simply said, "We scored 27 points."
Before they meet again, the Broncos must deal with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, while the Chiefs face San Diego.
"If we want to go all the way, then we need to figure out a way to beat Denver," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "We're going to put this game behind us and get ready for the next one."
Here are five things we learned from a game that featured the best combined record of two opponents this deep into the season since the NFL merger in 1970:
PROTECTIVE BRONCOS: There was some concern about Manning's long-term health coming into the game, given that the Broncos offensive line had allowed three blindside sacks and fumbles and an assortment of other blows to his lower legs over the previous three games. Tackles Chris Clark, Orlando Franklin and the rest of the line rose to the challenge against the league's leading sack team. Manning didn't get sacked. Didn't even really get his uniform dirty. "To go sackless against the leading sack defense in the NFL, that's a great testament to those guys," Manning said.
STOUT CHIEFS: Granted, they gave up more points than they had all season, more than double the league-leading 12.8 they'd been allowing coming into the game. And yes, the Broncos still amassed 427 yards in offense. But the Chiefs' defense was hardly a pushover, the way so many defenses are when they come up against Manning and the Broncos. The Chiefs forced three three-and-outs, six punts and two field-goal attempts of more than 50 yards. They held an offense that adjusts at halftime and averages 24 points in the third and fourth quarters to 10 in the second half. And those 27 points? Might not seem great but it was Denver's lowest total of the season.
VON WHO?: While so much of the talk about Denver's defense has revolved around Von Miller's absence and return, one of the players the Broncos brought in this season to augment the pass rush is putting up career numbers. Tenth-year veteran Shaun Phillips, formerly of San Diego, had a huge game: 10 tackles, two of those for loss, two quarterback hits, two deflected passes and 1½ sacks to bring his total to nine for the season. His career high was 11 1/2 in 2006.
NOT BUILT FOR COMEBACKS: Good as they've been this season, the Chiefs don't score enough to hang with Denver. At least not yet. They average 23 points. They came into the week ranked 26th on converting trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. Though the offense grinded, Alex Smith was held to 230 yards and Jamaal Charles only gained 78 on the ground. Their formula of solid defense was good enough to win nine straight against weaker teams, but Andy Reid needs to figure out a way to squeeze a few more touchdowns out of this offense for the rematch.
START THE SEARCH: Jack Del Rio is a popular guy these days and figures to keep getting more popular. The defensive coordinator-turned-interim head coach confirmed that he'd been contacted during the bye week by his alma mater, Southern Cal, which is searching for a new head coach. He insists his focus is in Denver. "Down the road, who knows where that goes," he said. If the college thing doesn't pan out, there could be some NFL offers rolling his way, as well, especially if he keeps going this way. He's 2-0 running things in Denver while John Fox recovers from heart surgery. The players like him and, so far, he's pulling all the right strings.
AP National Writer Eddie Pells contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org