Don’t try to tell anybody associated with the Chiefs or Broncos that their Thursday night game is not so meaningful, just because this is the second week of the NFL regular season. In an AFC West that looks to be as competitive as any division in the league — with the exception of Oakland — this game sets up as an early barometer of who deserves to be considered the favorite.
Kansas City looked pretty darn impressive in its 27-20 win over Team "Hard Knocks" in the opener. Alex Smith still hasn’t thrown a TD pass to a wide receiver in about nine years (actually, it’s January 2014), but the Chiefs took an early lead and held it by playing the kind of mistake-free ball that has come to characterize Andy Reid’s team.
Denver, meanwhile, was a curious winner over Baltimore, because the Broncos’ vaunted offense stalled against the Ravens. Peyton Manning didn’t even throw a touchdown pass, the first time that has happened in more than three seasons. No, it was the Denver D that did the job, and if it can continue to be stout, the Broncos will be lethal, since you know TV’s top pitchman isn’t going to struggle for long.
Denver at Kansas City
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET
TV: CBS, NFL Network
Spread: Kansas City -3
Three Things to Watch
1. For the Defense
It seems quite strange to write about a Denver victory that featured just 219 net yards for the Broncos. That used to be a good quarter for Peyton Manning alone. But Gary Kubiak’s team was extremely stingy against the Ravens, allowing 173 total yards and picking off Joe Flacco twice, one of which went for a TD. “That defense is fast and well-coached,” Reid said. “I think when it’s all said and done, they’ll be one of the better defenses in the National Football League when we get to the end of the year.”
2. Passing Fancy
Okay, so Smith didn’t connect with a wideout during the win over Houston, but he did throw three scoring passes, complete 66.7 percent of his throws and stay interception-free. And top free-agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin caught five passes and can still be considered one of the league’s top wide receivers, especially after his big 2014 campaign in Philadelphia. Expect Smith to continue to look for high-percentage opportunities and grow with Maclin as the season goes on. “We feel good about [Maclin] against anybody one on one, and with the guys we have on the inside, it creates a problem,” Smith said.
3. Old Timer
Manning did not look particularly sharp against the Ravens, completing only 24-of-40 passes for 175 yards and a pick-six. A lot of throws fluttered past open receivers, and he looked uncharacteristically awkward in the pocket. Granted, Baltimore’s defense is traditionally stout, but there is always the fear (among Denver fans) that the 39-year old QB, who struggled late last year, could be heading toward his professional sunset. Manning was a bit curt with the media after the game and was not pleased Tuesday when he appeared on the injury report with an alleged back issue. He’s also clear that Denver won its first game, no matter what his statistics are. “I guess we’re 1-0 is what we are,” he said. “I’m really trying to remind people it’s a Broncos unit. It’s not three separate teams.”
This is a tough one to pick, because it’s impossible to tell whether Manning is going to explode Thursday night and throw for 400 yards and five scores. He has had good success against Kansas City in the past, so there is no reason to think he will stumble, especially in such a big game. He doesn’t have to be perfect, since it looks like the Denver defense is pretty darn good.
It will have to be, because if Smith continues to get comfortable with Maclin, and Jamaal Charles stays a threat in the backfield, then the Chiefs become one of the more balanced teams in the AFC. This is a test for Smith, who must prove he can win against top opponents, if Kansas City is going to make a run at the playoffs. This is the perfect opportunity for him to take a step forward, playing at home against a top rival.
Prediction: Broncos 24, Chiefs 20
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.