The AFC’s top two teams go head-to-head when the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos get together tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC. The Chiefs (9-0) are coming off of a bye looking to go two games up on the Broncos (8-1) in the AFC West. This is the first of two meetings between the division rivals, with the rematch set for Dec. 1 in Kansas City.
First-year head coach Andy Reid has directed a remarkable turnaround of a Chiefs team that went 2-14 last season. The Chiefs’ defense is largely responsible for this, as linebacker Derrick Johnson and his running mates rank first in the league in points allowed. For the Broncos, interim head coach Jack Del Rio is filling in for a recovering John Fox, as the Peyton Manning-led offense is putting up more than 40 points per game and has yet to really be stopped by any team.
4 Things to Watch
No. 1 Offense vs. No. 1 Defense – Something’s Got to Give
Denver is far and away No. 1 in the NFL in scoring offense at 41.2 points per game. The Broncos have scored 40 or more points five times and their season low is 28, which came last week against San Diego. Kansas City is tops in scoring defense, giving up just 12.3 points per game. The Chiefs have held three opponents to seven points or fewer and the most they have allowed are 17 (twice). This is the head-to-head matchup everyone will be watching, as no defense has been able to hold Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ offense to less than 397 yards of offense. The Chiefs have allowed that many in a game just twice and also lead the league in sacks (36) and takeaways (23). Denver has made a habit of running away with games, as its 371 points through nine games is a NFL record and it has outscored teams by 133 points or 14.8 per game. Even though Kansas City is averaging nearly 18 points fewer per game (23.9) than Denver, the Chiefs have still outscored the opposition by 104 because of their stingy defense. The Broncos have been able to control the tempo and direction of games all season with their offense. The Chiefs have done the same, but with their defense. Whichever unit handles its toughest challenge yet will more than likely be well positioned to win tonight.
It’s no secret. The key to Denver’s prolific offense is No. 18. A surefire, first-ballot Hall of Famer, the four-time MVP has raised his production to another level this season. In nine games, Manning has thrown for 3,249 yards, 33 touchdowns and just six interceptions. To put it another way, Manning is averaging more yards passing per game (361) than 20 NFL teams are in total offense and his 33 touchdown passes alone account for more points (198) than 12 teams have scored this season. While it’s certainly true that Manning has the benefit of throwing to some talented pass-catchers like wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Eric Decker and tight end Julius Thomas, the running game led by Knowshon Moreno and the offensive line deserve a fair share of credit too. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Broncos’ offensive line ranks as the top unit in the league, which is impressive considering the team is without All-Pro starting left tackle Ryan Clady and have employed Manny Ramirez, normally a guard, at center all season. As a whole this unit has allowed just 13 sacks, which is the second-fewest in the league, although eight of these have come in the past three games. Manning is not known for being a mobile quarterback, especially now at 37 years old, and he has taken some pretty big hits recently. He sustained a sprained ankle a few games ago, and re-aggravated the injury last week against the Chargers. While the ankle injury won’t prevent him from playing, it has had a noticeable effect on his mobility as well as the crispness and velocity of his intermediate and deep passes. Kansas City leads the league with 36 sacks, as linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have combined for 20. Denver’s offensive line already has its work cut out for them, but Manning’s ankle injury only makes it even more critical that the front line finds a way to hold the Chiefs’ pass rush at bay and keep Manning’s jersey clean. The Broncos can ill afford to lose their lead horse.
The Von Miller Effect
Kansas City’s defense has far better statistics than Denver, but that doesn’t mean the Broncos’ unit should be overlooked. While Denver is giving up nearly 50 yards more (374.9 ypg to 326.9) per game and more than twice as many points (26.4 ppg to 12.3) per contest compared to Kansas City, a big reason for this is the success of the Broncos’ offense and the fact that most of the games have been blowouts. To put it simply, Denver has given up a lot of yards and a fair amount of points in what is known as “garbage time.” That said, the Broncos’ defense has had its issues, especially against the pass, but it’s been a different unit over the past three games. In its first six games, Denver yielded more than 400 yards per game. In their last three contests, the Broncos have given up less than 310 yards per game. So what has changed over the last month? How about the return of All-Pro linebacker Von Miller? After missing the first six games due to suspension, Miller has picked up right where he left off last season when he finished second to Houston’s J.J. Watt in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year. Miller’s presence has recharged the entire Denver defense, which is playing its best football of the season. This defense has produced eight sacks and six takeaways over its last three games and also is holding teams to fewer than 190 yards passing per game during this span. The statistics may not match up but the Broncos’ defense is just as capable of taking over a game as its counterpart, and no doubt it would certainly like to prove just as much tonight.
Charles in Charge
While Kansas City’s defense has been outstanding in preventing other teams from scoring, the Chiefs’ offense has had to do its part as well. Head coach Andy Reid may have had the most to do with the team’s turnaround in 2013, but another new Chief shouldn’t be overlooked. Quarterback Alex Smith has made the most of his fresh start, as the former San Francisco starter has done just what the coaching staff has asked him to do since trading for him in the offseason. Smith’s statistics pale in comparison to Peyton Manning’s, but the two quarterbacks run entirely different offenses. Smith deserves plenty of credit for his steady play, as he has accounted for 10 total touchdowns (9 pass, 1 rush) with just four interceptions. However, Kansas City’s offense begins and ends with running back Jamaal Charles. The Chiefs’ most productive offensive weapon, Charles ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing with 725 yards. He is fourth in the league in carries (170) and also has posted a team-leading 47 receptions for 389 yards. Charles is second only to LeSean McCoy in both yards from scrimmage (1,114) and total touches (217). All told, Charles is accounting for 37.2 percent of the Chiefs’ total offense this season, so he will need to find a way to do some damage when he gets the ball tonight. His task won’t be easy, however, as Denver is fourth in the league in rushing defense (87.0 ypg). The most yards on the ground the Broncos have given up to any player this season is 93 (Alfred Morris), so that would be a good number for Charles to aim for tonight. In fact, if Charles is able to run the ball successfully not only will he be doing his offense a favor, he also will be helping his defense by keeping the ball out of Manning’s hands.
Kansas City Key Player: Dwayne Bowe, WR
Even before Sunday, Bowe’s season could only be labeled as disappointing. After signing a five-year, $56 million contract extension, Bowe has struggled to develop any sort of consistent chemistry with new quarterback Alex Smith. Bowe is second to running back Jamaal Charles in receptions with 33, but he has totaled just 369 yards (11.2 ypr) and two touchdowns. Supposedly the Chiefs’ best vertical threat, Bowe has three catches of 20 yards or more. Things only got worse for Bowe when he was arrested early Sunday, during the team’s bye week, for marijuana possession and speeding. Bowe has already been suspended once by the NFL, four games in 2009 for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, but his latest legal matter is covered by a different policy. That is the main reason why Bowe will be on the field tonight, as both the Chiefs and the NFL are prohibited, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), from disciplining Bowe until the matter is resolved by the police and the legal system. The bottom line is Bowe’s arrest is an off-the-field matter and distraction the Chiefs didn’t want to have to deal with, especially this week. As it relates to his legal issues, it doesn’t matter one way or the other how well he plays. As it relates to his teammates, however, tonight would be the perfect time for Bowe’s production to start matching up with his paycheck.
Denver Key Player: Knowshon Moreno, RB
Kansas City has Jamaal Charles, but Denver has its own productive running back in Moreno. Largely an afterthought after the Broncos selected Wisconsin’s Montee Ball in the second round of April’s draft; Moreno has earned the starting job due in large part to his pass-protection skills, and has certainly made the most of his opportunities. Moreno enters this week 17th in the NFL with 521 yards rushing, but his eight rushing touchdowns are second only to Adrian Peterson. Moreno is not a workhorse, averaging 14 carries per game, but he’s also been a presence in the passing attack (37 rec., TD) and has yet to lose a fumble in 160 total touches. More importantly, he’s one of the reasons why Peyton Manning has been sacked just 13 times, as he’s adept at picking up the blitz and taking care of his assignments in pass blocking. Kansas City leads the league in sacks (36), but the Chiefs have been somewhat susceptible to the run this season, giving up 118.6 yards rushing per game. With Manning dealing with a lingering ankle injury, Moreno’s dual role as rusher and pass protector bears even more importance tonight. For once, it may be in Denver’s best interests to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands and instead let Moreno carry the load.
It’s not often that you have two NFL teams that have lost a total of one game face off in the middle of November. Other than the records, however, Denver and Kansas City have little in common. The Broncos have been doing it with offense, the Chiefs defense. Denver has a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, while Kansas City has a signal-caller who fits the mold of “game manager” to a tee. Even the head coaches are opposites, as Andy Reid hails from an offensive background and Broncos’ interim head coach Jack Del Rio is the team’s defensive coordinator.
It’s easy to understand why the focus for this game has been on Denver’s offense vs. Kansas City’s defense and that would be the case even if Peyton Manning wasn’t walking around on a gimpy right ankle. However, I think the deciding factor will be which of the unheralded units, the Broncos’ defense or the Chiefs’ offense, makes the bigger contribution.
In the end, I think Manning and company are able to put together enough scoring drives and the defense makes the game-saving play late in the fourth quarter to earn the narrow victory. And whether this matchup plays out like a classic confrontation or not just remember, these two teams will do it all again in just two weeks.
Denver 23, Kansas City 20