All four teams in the AFC West are separated by a single game, and this dramatic divisional race will get prime-time treatment when the Kansas City Chiefs host the Denver Broncos on "Sunday Night Football."
This rivalry has historically been streaky, dating back to the Chiefs (née Dallas Texans) winning 25 of the first 27 games in the series. Kansas City has won the most recent 11 games, dating back to November 2015, but Denver won the seven previous to that.
The Broncos have yet to figure out Patrick Mahomes in seven starts. That could be tricky at Arrowhead Stadium with the Chiefs coming off a bye — Andy Reid's teams are 19-3 when they play following a week off. But they'll have to end that losing streak when they play Kansas City twice in six weeks to stay in the playoff hunt.
Not only are the Broncos in a three-way tie for second, a game behind the Chiefs, they're also one of five six-win AFC teams vying for the seventh seed. And that's not to mention the 5-5-1 Steelers.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, still have a shot at the AFC's No. 1 seed despite a 3-4 start. They’re just a game back of the Ravens and a half-game back of the Patriots and Titans, although they’ve already lost to Baltimore and Tennessee.
Sunday Night Football: Denver (6-5) at Kansas City (7-4)
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 5 at 8:20 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -9.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Denver's two high safeties slow Mahomes?
Patrick Mahomes has looked rather human this season — merely 10th in the league in QBR (57.4) and touchdown rate (5.6 percent) — and there's been a common thread to how teams have slowed him down. Opponents have used two high safeties, a strategy popularized in recent years by Broncos head coach Vic Fangio.
Of course, that hasn't worked against Mahomes recently for the Broncos. But the strategy is sound. Take away deep passes, drop seven into coverage to clog the middle, and dare the quarterback to make short passes or hand the ball off.
That strategy has been especially effective as the Chiefs' running game has struggled with Clyde Edwards-Helaire out. The second-year back out of LSU hasn't been the game-breaker the Chiefs hoped he'd be, but his return from a knee injury in Week 11 — 12 rushes for 63 yards and a score — was an improvement on what the team was getting from backup Darrel Williams (3.6 ypc).
Denver is a bit banged up in the secondary with Bryce Callahan (knee) out and Kareem Jackson (neck) limited in practice, so the pressure will be on a unit that coughed up 285 passing yards to Justin Herbert last week.
2. Is Kansas City's defense suddenly good?
Everyone knows about the Chiefs' offense, but the unit that has carried Kansas City in recent weeks has been the defense. Over their last six games, they've given up a total of 30 points in the second half. That comes after giving up an average of 32.6 points in their first five games.
It's been easy to come up with reasons why this defense may not have suddenly turned a corner. They were already blown out in the first half by the Titans. The quarterbacks they faced included Taylor Heinicke, Daniel Jones, and Jordan Love. But shutting down Derek Carr and then Dak Prescott is nothing to scoff at.
Much of their success in recent weeks can be attributed to turnovers, as the team has 11 in the last six games after only creating four through Week 5. But for all of Teddy Bridgwater's limitations as a passer, he does a great job of holding onto the ball — his 1.6 percent interception rate is fifth best among qualified passers.
Given the unit's weakness over the past several seasons, proving that they can stop a team with a bey of talented skill-position players without depending on turnovers will be illuminating for Kansas City's impending playoff run.
3. Is this Javonte Williams' chance to shine?
One of those talented skill-position players is Denver's rookie running back. Williams has averaged at least five yards per carry in five of his last eight games but is averaging less than 10 attempts per game during that stretch.
That could change Sunday night as his backfield partner Melvin Gordon III has been held out of practice this week due to neck and hip injuries. If he does play, he's sure to have a more limited role than his usual 55-45 split.
Rookie running backs usually see their usage ramp up in the second half of the year, and this all comes together to portend a breakout. The Chiefs struggle against the run in both traditional (4.6 yards allowed per attempt, 28th in the NFL) and advanced metrics (4.55 adjusted line yards, 26th), so Williams could be trouble on Sunday night.
The Chiefs are rounding into form at the right time, and it’s hard to discount Reid’s track record when given an extra week to prepare. However, there are some matchup problems that could expose cracks they’ve shown all season long. A nearly double-digit spread is probably too generous for Kansas City, but they are heavy favorites at home for a reason.