DENVER, DEC. 19 -- Coach Dan Reeves of the Broncos prematurely was conceding three points when Nick Lowery of the Kansas City Chiefs lined up to try a 37-yard field goal with 34 seconds to play today. But Lowery missed and the Broncos escaped with a 20-17 victory that moved them nearer the playoffs.

"I was hoping for overtime," Reeves admitted. "I really didn't think he'd miss the field goal. He's one of the best. Certainly the good Lord smiled on us.

"I was thinking that we had two timeouts left if he made it. I was thinking about getting good field position {after the kickoff}."

Running back Sammy Winder of the Broncos said: "I couldn't bear to look at it."

Quarterback John Elway, stretching to get ready to go back on the field, expected Lowery to succeed.

The Broncos led at the half, 17-3, then held on.

"It was two different halves of football," Reeves said. "We won the first half. They won the second half. Bill Kenney did a great job of bringing them back.

"It seemed like every time we had a chance to take charge, we let them back in it. This doesn't get us where we want to be, but it was a good win."

Elway passed for 237 yards and a touchdown as the Broncos took their lead.

"You can't wait until the second half against Denver," Kansas City Coach Frank Gansz said. "You have to come out and put some points on the board.

"I thought we'd at least send it into overtime. It's a disappointing loss, and we've had a disappointing season."

Lowery thought his last kick would be successful. "I hit it well and I hit it high," he said. "It must have missed by an inch or two. For some reason, all my kicks today were going right. Maybe it was because of kicking on grass. I haven't kicked on grass for a couple of weeks."

The Broncos are 9-4-1, best in the American Football Conference. But contrary to the NFL's calculations earlier in the week, the Broncos did not clinch a playoff berth with the victory. A loss on Sunday by one of four teams -- the San Diego Chargers, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns or Pittsburgh Steelers -- would give the Broncos that playoff spot, though.

They could clinch the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a victory over the Chargers here in the regular season finale next week.

The Chiefs fell to 3-11.

Denver scored on its only three possessions of the first half to take its seemingly safe 17-3 lead.

Gene Lang's three-yard run ended a 76-yard drive in the first quarter. Denver made it 10-0 early in the second period on Rich Karlis' field goal.

After Lowery kicked a field goal, Elway took the Broncos 80 yards in 13 plays, ending with an eight-yard scoring pass to Winder.

The Chiefs countered quickly in the second half. Herman Heard swept the left side, cut back to midfield and went 64 yards for a touchdown.

Karlis' second field goal put Denver up 20-10 before Kansas City cut the deficit to 20-17 on Kenney's eight-yard pass to Stephone Paige with 6:36 remaining. Kansas City 0 3 7 7 17 Denver 7 10 3 0 20 First Quarter

D -- Lang 3 run (Karlis kick), 8:27Second Quarter

D -- FG Karlis 20, 2:46

KC -- FG Lowery 33, 6:39

D -- Winder 8 pass from Elway (Karlis kick), 13:29Third Quarter

KC -- Heard 64 run (Lowery kick), 1:16

D -- FG Karlis 43, 12:02Fourth Quarter

KC -- Paige 8 pass from Kenney (Lowery kick), 8:24

A -- 75,053

Chiefs Broncos First downs 20 22 Rushes-yards 21-123 40-143 Passing yards 254 226 Return yards 26 45 Passing 26-39-0 18-31-0 Sacked-yards lost 2-18 1-11 Punts-average 5-47 4-52 Fumbles-lost 2-1 2-2 Penalties-yards 9-70 7-58 Time of possession 24:48

RUSHING -- Kansas City: Heard 10-93, Moriarty 6-22, Palmer 2-8, Kenney 2-0, Okoye 1-0. Denver: Winder 23-98

PASSING -- Kansas City: Kenney 26-39-0, 272 yards. Denver: Elway 18-31-0, 237.

RECEIVING -- Kansas City: Paige 5-78, Carson 5-59, Heard 3-37, Hayes 3-35, Okoye 3-24, Moriarty 3-11, Colbe

MISSED FIELD GOALS -- Kansas City: Lowery 49, 37.