The Chiefs are looking to bounce back from last week’s heartbreaking, last-second home loss to the Titans and earn their third playoff berth in four seasons under Andy Reid. While the defeat was distressing, it wasn't a death sentence for Kansas City’s AFC West title hopes. A win on Sunday night against the Broncos, and a Raiders loss to the Colts on Saturday, means the two teams would have the same record heading into Week 17.
Denver’s offense has picked the worst time to start falling apart, with just 13 points in the last two games, all while fighting for a wild card spot. A win against the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium is needed if the Broncos want to keep alive any hope of getting back to the postseason to get the opportunity to defend their Super Bowl title.
Denver at Kansas City
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 25 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Kansas City -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Denver’s Front Line Woes
No one expected Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian to be a Pro Bowl-caliber signal-caller in his first season as a starter. What was expected was that the Broncos‘ impressive offensive line that did so well protecting a limited Peyton Manning a season ago would hold up for Siemian. That hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, and the Broncos’ playoff chances are slipping because of the line’s inability to protect Siemian. He has been sacked 18 times in his last four starts, including five by the Chiefs in the teams’ first meeting in Week 12.
But it’s not just protecting Siemian that has been the problem. The running game that was the fail-safe for Denver’s offense a season ago has become non-existent, as the Broncos rank 27th in the league in rushing offense. Denver has to find a way to pick up some yards on the ground and protect Siemian or else it wont be such a holly jolly Christmas in the Mile High City.
2. Siemian v. Smith, Part Deux
The matchup of Siemian and Alex Smith doesn't exactly elicit nostalgia of Brady vs. Manning, but the quarterback play on Sunday night very likely will decide the playoff of fates of these two teams. As noted above, Siemian has essentially been running for his life in recent weeks, putting the already novice quarterback in too many no-win situations for the Broncos to be successful. But the last time these two teams met, Siemian clearly outplayed Smith, throwing for 368 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. With the Broncos’ running game in shambles, Siemian is going to be called upon to make plays — hopefully his receivers can hang on to the ball this time around.
No one expects Smith to be a stat sheet-stuffer. As the ultimate game manager, that’s not Smith’s m.o. But at some point the Chiefs’ football future will rest on the arm of Smith, which if you’re a Kansas City fan, is cringeworthy. Smith is the ultimate underneath thrower, not one to go downfield (even when he has to), and the numbers back it up. On third down with between four and six yards to go, Smith is completing just 54 percent of his passes and averaging six yards per attempt. On third down with seven to nine yards to go, Smith is completing just 37 percent of passes and only averaging 3.8 yards per attempt. Against a stout Denver defense, Smith will have to find tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin as much as possible. A repeat of last week’s 15-for-28, 163-yard performance against the Titans wont get it done against the Broncos or in the playoffs.
3. Last Back Standing
Justin Forsett is the quintessential NFL running back journeyman, the type you’d expect to see on the Patriots’ roster at some point. Forsett is on his third team in 2016 and seventh of his career after being released by the Ravens and Lions earlier this season. The 31-year-old is the Broncos’ last-ditch effort to find any semblance of a running game this season.
Rookie Devontae Booker is the team’s leading rusher, but he has been limited in recent weeks — likely due to multiple knee surgeries prior to this season. But even before being replaced by Forsett, Booker’s production was marginal, averaging only 3.8 yards per carry and 37 rushing yards per game. Last year’s duo of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman was broken up before the season began as Denver moved on from the latter, while the former was placed on injured reserve in late October. Reserve Kapri Bibbs also was lost for the season because of injury.
So now the backfield burden falls on Forsett, who’s only been with the team for a few weeks, to give some balance to the Broncos’ offense.
Despite reports of infighting between the offense and the defense, the Broncos swear everything is fine — while the ship slowly sinks. The defense, led by Von Miller, is as stout as any in the league, but can’t catch seem to catch a break. Not only is leading tackler, safety T.J. Ward, in the league’s concussion protocol, linebacker Brandon Marshall has missed time with a hamstring injury. With a struggling offense, Denver’s playoff hopes are slipping away and the defending Super Bowl champions could find themselves eliminated with a loss on Christmas Eve night.
Prediction: Chiefs 21, Broncos 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.