First place in the AFC West and the top seed in the playoffs are on the line this afternoon when the Denver Broncos face the Kansas City Chiefs at 4:25 p.m. ET on CBS. The Broncos and Chiefs are currently tied for the best record in the AFC at 9-2, with Denver holding the tiebreaker edge over Kansas City by virtue of their 27-17 win two weeks ago.
For the first time all season, both teams are coming off of losses, as Denver and Peyton Manning tied a franchise record by blowing a 24-point halftime lead to New England last week before losing in overtime, 34-31. Kansas City’s 41-38 loss to San Diego last Sunday was its second loss in a row and the first at home all season for Alex Smith and company. Now the Chiefs look to bounce back and snap a three-game losing streak to their division rivals in the process.
3 Things to Watch
You Look Familiar…
It was just two weeks ago that Denver and Kansas City faced each other. At that time, the Chiefs were the only remaining undefeated team (9-0), while the Broncos had just one loss (8-1). The Broncos jumped out to a 10-0 lead at home in the first quarter and never really looked back. Denver would go on to win 27-17 behind 323 yards passing by Peyton Manning. The 27 points were, at the time, the most allowed by Kansas City’s defense, which didn’t record a single sack of Manning. On offense, the Chiefs out-gained the Broncos 144 to 104 on the ground, but struggled to find their rhythm in the passing game. Alex Smith had one more touchdown pass (2 to 1) than Manning, but nearly 100 fewer yards and he was sacked three times. Each team lost a fumble and drew their share of yellow flags. The teams combined for 22 penalties for 135 yards, with the Broncos (13 for 82 yards) being the bigger culprit. Outside of the score and total yardage (Denver 427, Kansas City 344), there was very little separation between them, statistically speaking. First downs were even (24 apiece), the total number of plays was very close (76 to 73) and just 14 seconds separated the Broncos (29:53) and Chiefs (30:07) in time of possession. In the end, the Broncos were just a little more efficient and productive in the passing game, which combined with the Chiefs’ inability to get to Manning, resulted in Denver staying perfect at home and moving into first place in the AFC West.
Bumps and Bruises
Last week was tough for both Denver and Kansas City, and not just because they both lost after leading at halftime. Several key players for both teams sustained injuries, and their potential absences or limited capacities could greatly impact this game. For the Broncos, the biggest concern is running back Knowshon Moreno, who gashed the Patriots for a career-high 224 yards last week, but left the stadium on crutches after sustaining a bone bruise to his right ankle. Despite the initial concern, Moreno did return to practice on Thursday and Friday and is expected to play. The status of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is a little more uncertain. Rodgers-Cromartie injured his shoulder against the Patriots, which caused him to leave the game and not return. His absence was one of the catalysts that helped fuel the Patriots’ second-half comeback. He was limited in Friday’s practice and is considered questionable to play this afternoon. The Broncos could get a boost, however, with the return of tight end Julius Thomas and cornerback Champ Bailey. Thomas was held out of last week’s game because of a knee injury, but is currently on track to play, while Bailey is expected to be back in the lineup for the first time since re-aggravating a foot injury back in Week 7. Kansas City’s defense, however, may not be as fortunate when it comes to its banged-up personnel. Linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hail both left last week’s game against San Diego with injuries. Hali sprained his ankle, but he has insisted that he will play. Houston, meanwhile, dislocated his elbow and reportedly could miss up to three weeks. The Chiefs entered Week 13 with an NFL-leading 37 sacks. Houston (11 sacks, tied for third in the NFL) and Hali (9, tied for 10th) are responsible for 20 of them. Kansas City didn’t record a single sack or quarterback hit on Peyton Manning in the first game two weeks ago. This task only figures to get harder without Houston and if Hail ends up being limited. For example, even though Houston didn’t have a sack in the first game, he led the Chiefs with 10 total tackles (9 solo). Injuries are just part of the game, especially at this point in the season, but it appears that the Broncos are the healthier team entering this key contest.
Which Defense Bounces Back Best?
Through the first nine games, Kansas City’s defense had allowed no more than 17 points and 283 yards passing. In their last two games, losses to the Broncos and Chargers, the Chiefs have given up an average of 34 points per game and 355 yards through the air. Last week, Philip Rivers carved up the pass defense for nearly 400 yards (392) and three touchdowns. Peyton Manning threw for 323 against Kansas City the first time, and the Chiefs will be without their most productive pass-rusher (Justin Houston) this afternoon. One way or the other, the Chiefs’ defense needs to fix what’s been ailing it the past two weeks. For Denver’s defense, it was a tale of two halves last week in New England. After shutting out the Patriots in the first half and doing everything right, the wheels came completely off in the final two quarters. Top cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie injured his shoulder on the final play of the first half and didn’t return. The Broncos’ defense wasn’t the same after that, as Tom Brady completed 81 percent of his passes and threw three touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters to help send the game into overtime. A couple of untimely turnovers certainly didn’t help matters, but no doubt interim head coach Jack Del Rio and his staff spent a lot of time this week trying to figure out what went wrong, especially in pass coverage. Both defenses had their moments in the Week 11 meeting and now it’s up to both units to quickly put last week’s disastrous performances behind and focus on the task ahead. This isn’t basketball, but whichever defense “wins” the rebound battle this afternoon will likely leave Arrowhead Stadium victorious.
Denver Key Player: Montee Ball, RB
Knowshon Moreno was the man and then some last week against New England, rushing for 224 yards and a touchdown. Alas, it wasn’t enough as the Broncos blew a 24-0 halftime lead and lost 34-31 in overtime. On top of that, the 37 carries Moreno had took their toll, as he left Gillette Stadium on crutches after sustaining a bone bruise to his right ankle. Moreno is expected to play this afternoon, but the situation brought to light one of the Broncos’ biggest concerns entering the stretch run – not overworking their No. 1 back. That’s where Ball, and to a degree either C.J. Anderson or Ronnie Hillman, are supposed to come in. Ball, Denver’s second-round pick in April’s draft, has contributed more as the season has gone on, including three rushing touchdowns over his last four games. However, ball security remains an issue for the rookie, as he’s lost three fumbles. The latest was rather costly, as Ball fumbled on a screen pass on the Broncos’ first possession of the second half after New England scored its first touchdown. The Patriots turned that fumble into a touchdown just six plays later, cutting a 24-point lead to just 10 in less than 10 minutes. Ball’s fumble is not the only reason why the Broncos lost last week. However, with the wear and tear adding up on Moreno, it’s critical that the rookie show the coaching staff, and Peyton Manning for that matter, that he can get the job done when his number is called. If Ball can’t be counted on in the regular season, what do you think will happen in the playoffs?
Kansas City Key Player: Alex Smith, QB
When surrendering 17 or fewer points, the Chiefs are 9-0 this season. This is a good thing, considering the Chiefs are scoring less than 25 points per game. Kansas City has put more than 28 on the scoreboard two times this season, with one of those being the 41-38 loss to San Diego last week. Contrast that to Denver, who has scored fewer than 28 points once, when the Broncos beat the Chiefs 27-17 two weeks ago. Smith is known for being more of a game manager than a risk-taker, but as the Chiefs have found out the past two weeks, there will be some games where the defense can’t be expected to do all of the heavy lifting. Kansas City’s offense is powered by running back Jamaal Charles, but Smith has to be able to hold his own when he’s going up against quarterbacks like Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers, especially come playoff time. In the last two games, both Kansas City losses, Smith threw for a combined total of 524 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Manning and Rivers combined for 715 yards passing, four touchdowns and no picks. Kansas City out-rushed both Denver and San Diego, and yet still lost both games – by 10 points to the Broncos and three to the Chargers. The Chiefs’ defense was a big reason why they got out to a 9-0 start. It’s now Smith’s and the offense’s turn to lead the way.
Having just played each other two weeks ago, Denver and Kansas City probably spent more time this week figuring out what went wrong last week than on game planning for each other. There’s no doubt both teams are still feeling the pain from last Sunday’s disappointing (to put it mildly) losses. A strong case could be made that the Broncos’ second-half collapse was more devastating than the Chiefs’ late defensive lapses against the Chargers, but one or the way other, each team must move on.
Denver won the first meeting two weeks ago behind the passing of Peyton Manning and a stellar performance from the offensive line and running backs in pass protection. Kansas City’s disruptive pass rush never laid a hand on Manning, which gave him more than enough time to find the open man down field. Pressuring the quarterback could play another big part in this afternoon’s game, as Denver’s All-Pro linebacker Von Miller has been a difference-maker since his return from suspension, while Kansas City’s productive pass rush won’t be at 100 percent with Justin Houston sidelined and Tamba Hail likely limited.
Last week’s loss to the Patriots was definitely a hard one for the Broncos to digest, but this is a veteran team that knows full well there’s still business to take care of. Meanwhile, I think the inexperienced Chiefs are still learning how to deal with adversity, and the offense hasn’t shown an ability to completely pick up the slack while the defense has struggled these past two weeks. In the end, the growing pains for the Chiefs continue, as the Broncos pull ahead in the AFC West and the race for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Denver 30, Kansas City 20