The Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos meet in a vital divisional matchup on Sunday night. Head coach Andy Reid has turned the Chiefs around in one season, while Peyton Manning is breaking NFL records in his second year with Denver. This game will answer some of the league's biggest questions, and give a better sense of where these two teams stand entering the playoffs.
Meet the Denver Broncos
Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense are sustaining numbers that seem impossible: First in the NFL in scoring at over 40 points, while averaging 450 yards of offense.
The team's weakness from a year ago has rectified itself with newfound reliability from running back Knowshon Moreno. He leads the Broncos with 521 yards and eight touchdowns. This has allowed the offense to become more balanced, and more consistent in short-yardage situations.
Manning remains the key to the team, a player who can use the offense's various weapons to attack every level of the field. When a team cheats into the box to stop Wes Welker, he'll go over the top to Demaryius Thomas. When both are covered, Manning will find tight end Julius Thomas. Teams need to choose where their gaps will be, making it a near-impossible matchup.
Defensively, the Broncos are a talented team that generates a lot of pressure while protecting Manning. Denver has 26 sacks while allowing 13. The defensive key has been linebacker Shaun Phillips, who shouldered the burden while Von Miller was gone to start the season, with 7.5 total sacks.
Meet the Kansas City Chiefs
Nobody is confusing the Chiefs offense with the Broncos offense, but they don't have to. An overwhelming pass rush and conservative quarterback play are the key reasons this team has won nine straight games.
Alex Smith isn't a playmaker inside the pocket, but he does the little things it takes to win games. He knows when to check down to an outlet pass and how to utilize his running backs in the passing game. Pair this with Jamaal Charles and you get a varied and dangerous offense that's often underrated because it doesn't generate an excess of points.
Where this team really shines is on defense, where the league's best pass rush can derail quarterbacks before they have a chance to get in rhythm. The Chiefs have an astonishing 36 sacks in 2013, with linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston combining for 20 this year. Another nine players have taken down the quarterback this season, making Kansas City the best defense Peyton Manning has faced.
Local Takes: Denver Broncos
Bronco Mike from Mile High Report looked at what makes the Kansas City offense tick.
The wide alignment helps with a couple of things. In coverage, you will see these guys drop into a shallow zone to protect the flat. Lining up here puts them closer to their assignment. When rushing the passer, they have the speed to make up that ground which puts pressure on the tackles to kick outside wide enough to pick them up. It helps them set up double moves and get folks off balance when they want to cut back inside.
Local Takes: Kansas City Chiefs
Over at Arrowhead Pride, the concern was stopping the high-powered Broncos offense, something Nick Jacobs focused on.
This is going to be a great challenge. This is the best offense in the NFL from a mismatch perspective. The Chiefs pass rush and secondary will be challenged in the same way they were against the Texans, Browns and Bills. All had talented tight ends and wide receiver corps. None of them had a Peyton Manning though.
The Chiefs have a great shot to get a win in this game but it will take a lights-out effort from the pass rush and secondary. Kansas City also needs to have a very good ground game to run the clock out on Manning.
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Ryan Van Bibber believes the spread is too big given Kansas City's vaunted defense.
For me, this game's really about what these two defenses can do. Kansas City's ability to maul quarterbacks while taking away any hope a passer has for finding an open man is the key to a Chiefs win. It could also end up telling us just how far either one of these teams can go this season.
Kansas City actually has a better record against the spread, 6-3 versus 5-4. Eight points is just too generous for my liking.
The pick: Chiefs
The Denver Broncos are 8-point favorites, according to OddsShark.