The first game of the season between the Denver Broncos and the Kansas City Chiefs was one of the most highly anticipated and most-watched games of the season so far. The Broncos had the league's best offense and an unstoppable quarterback, and the Chiefs were the last undefeated team in the league at 9-0.
The Broncos got the better of their division rivals at home, but a lot has changed between these two teams in the fortnight between the games. The Broncos — and Peyton Manning in particular — looked mortal against the Patriots in Week 12, playing in biting cold weather for the first time all season. After a hard-fought game against the Broncos, the Chiefs followed up with a loss to the Chargers.
Now, both teams are 9-2 and looking for a rebound game. The winner of the game at Arrowhead Stadium can clinch a playoff berth if everything falls right, but that's not the prime goal for these teams. With just four games left after this one, both have their eyes set on a division crown and the implications that come with it: home-field advantage for at least a round in the playoffs, and maybe even a bye.
That's what's on the line Sunday in Kansas City. The AFC playoff picture will be a lot clearer after this one.
Meet the Broncos
The Broncos have to be reeling after blowing a 24-0 lead against the Patriots last Sunday night. After the Chiefs lost earlier in the day, they could have been in the driver's seat for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they have dropped back to the field.
Their offense has slowed a bit after its historic start to the season, but no one could have — although maybe they should have — expected Peyton Manning to lay an egg like he did Sunday night. He threw for just 150 yards (his previous season low was 295), two touchdowns and an interception. Because of the weather, he dialed up far more running plays, but his ineffectiveness in the second half was startling compared to the excellence he's displayed all year.
His previous worst game of the year came the previous week against the very Chiefs he will now face in a hostile environment. He threw just one touchdown against them, although the running game accounted for much of the Broncos' scoring in that win.
The prevailing question surrounding the Broncos is whether Peyton is slowing down. If it's a minor slump, then it's no big deal. If his historic start, in which he averaged 41.6 attempts in his first eight games, has started to wear on his arm, then the Broncos could be vulnerable.
Meet the Chiefs
The Chiefs have to be more confident in their ability to beat the Broncos after watching the Patriots come back last Sunday night, but they don't have Foxborough weather on their side: the temperature is predicted to be in the high 40s around game time.
Dispelling some of that confidence is the current health status of the Chiefs' dominant pass rush. Linebacker Justin Houston — who has 11 sacks on the season — dislocated his elbow against the Chargers and is almost certainly out for the game. Tamba Hali and his nine sacks suffered a sprained ankle in the same game, but he plans on playing. Hali is a balanced rusher who relies as much on his strength and technique as he does he speed, but that ankle is a concern even if he's on the field.
It's common knowledge that the most effective way to beat Peyton Manning is to pressure him and make him make throws on the move. Without Houston and with Hali at less than 100 percent, that's going to be a tall task for the Chiefs.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Chiefs have the benefit of health to their superstar, Jamaal Charles. He's been outstanding in pretty much every game, and will need to have among his best games of the year if the Chiefs are going to win.
Local Takes: Denver Broncos
Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson is out for six weeks with a dislocated hip, and Mile High Report is concerned about the state of the Broncos depth chart:
Can you name the number of injuries the Broncos have had to their defensive front at this point? I sure can't. This one hurts because the big man along with Terrance Knighton has helped the Broncos front 7 become one of the stingiest units against the run.
As far as who would replace him, look for Sylvester Williams to gain an increased role.
Next man up--we still have reserves???
Local Takes: Kansas City Chiefs
The always excellent Arrowhead Pride has a film room breakdown of how the Chiefs can adjust their defense to stop Peyton Manning. Here's an example:
One of the biggest problems the Chiefs faced against Denver was the Broncos focus on Dontari Poe. Most plays the Broncos put two blockers on him. That limited their ability to put consistent pressure on Manning, who averaged around 2.5 seconds per throw. The only way you are getting to the quarterback consistently in that time is with a bull rush. Poe getting double-teamed negates that opportunity. The Chiefs need to flush Manning out of the pocket.
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This game is tough to get a read on. Peyton Manning is typically excellent on the road, but Arrowhead Stadium when the Chiefs are winning is historically one of the tougher places in the league to play. The Chiefs are slumping a bit but no one's doubting whether they're for real anymore after narrow losses to the Broncos and the Chargers. The Broncos are slumping, too, but it's Peyton Manning and the Broncos, so it's hard to not think they will at least be very good.
Ultimately, it comes down to which defense is healthier. Although Vickerson is a huge loss for the Broncos, the thought of no Houston and a limited Hali leading to a clean pocket for Manning swings this toward the Orange and Blue.
Broncos 31, Chiefs 21
The Broncos opened as 2.5-point favorites, according to Odds Shark.
The Broncos have a chance to bolster their own playoff hopes in Week 14 when they host the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Dec. 8 at 4:05 p.m. ET. The Chiefs will go on the road to take on the reeling Redskins that same day at 1 p.m. ET.