The Denver Broncos (12-3) can wrap up a first-round bye in the playoffs with a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs (2-13) on Sunday afternoon. If Denver does secure the bye, the team expects both running back Willis McGahee (torn MCL and leg fracture) and guard Chris Kuper (ankle) to be back in time for the playoffs.
"Chris Kuper (was) limited today, (and is) questionable for this week's game," Coach John Fox told media members on Friday, via DenverBroncos.com. "He’s making good headway. He’s healthier. He practiced for the first time yesterday and then today. I think he’s making good progress."
The Broncos seem likely to rest Kuper this week, giving him two weeks to continue healing in preparation for an expected divisional playoff match in January.
"Kuper has been out for a little bit," continued Fox. "We’re just going to make sure he’s ready to play football and we’ll make that decision day to day.”
Kuper's eventual return will be important for the Broncos offensive line in the postseason. Denver could face pass-rushers such as J.J. Watt, Rob Ninkovich, Terrell Suggs, Geno Atkins and Robert Mathis in the playoffs, and they will want their offensive line to be at full strength.
In the five games that Kuper has been healthy and has started this season, the Broncos are 5-0 and quarterback Peyton Manning was sacked just two times (both in the same game). In games without Kuper this season, the Broncos have gone 7-3 and Manning has been sacked 19 times—quite a noticeable difference, even if taken from a larger number of games.
Meanwhile, Fox said McGahee is also on schedule to return for the postseason.
"He’s rehabbing," said Fox. "All indications are it’s on schedule and he’s getting better every day. He won’t be ready here anytime real soon but we’ll evaluate that as we get going and finish up the regular season.”
While Kuper could potentially play in the season finale, McGahee is not yet ready, and he wouldn't be allowed to be taken off the injured reserve list with a designation to return in the third week of January (right before the AFC Championship Game) anyway.
Kuper's return will be huge for Denver's offense, but McGahee hasn't really been missed since he went down with injury in Week 11 versus San Diego. That is because fourth-year running back Knowshon Moreno has finally started to catch fire, and the Broncos have had no trouble finishing games by running out the game clock on the ground in recent weeks.
In the 10 games McGahee did play in this season, he fumbled five times (four lost). Ball security will be key in the postseason, and McGahee could prove to be a liability if given a large workload right after coming back from a serious knee injury.
When McGahee does return, expect Moreno to retain the starting gig and for McGahee to provide depth. McGahee has averaged 4.6 yards per carry since joining the Broncos last offseason, however, and could provide a nice change-of-pace option for Denver's backfield in the postseason.
Denver, a team that is already hot entering the playoffs, have two of their offensive pieces primed to return for the postseason—much to the chagrin of every other team in the AFC.