The Denver Broncos have proved over the last two seasons they are one of the best teams in football, but the Kansas City Chiefs are the team sitting atop the AFC West standings. The Chiefs stand in the way of the Broncos hosting a playoff game and they can’t afford to lose to them at home with only six games to play.
Despite what their 9-0 record would seem to indicate, the Chiefs are very beatable. As long as the Broncos don’t implode, they should at least have a chance to win the game.
The Chiefs haven’t exactly been blowing teams out, even though many of their opponents have been starting backup quarterbacks. Kansas City has a great defense, but it’s also carrying a sub-standard offense. The Broncos have a great offense, but gain a significant advantage if their defense is also playing well.
For that reason, the keys to the game are all pertaining to the offense. If the Broncos get their offense going, they should win the game. Only if the offense sputters do the Chiefs have a chance to win the game—unless something really crazy happens.
Keep Manning Clean
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning missed practice on Wednesday, but he returned on Thursday and will start on Sunday night. Manning has been dealing with a high ankle sprain for weeks and he aggravated it late last week when San Diego Chargers defense end Corey Liuget hit him low.
Manning is easily the most important player on the team and protecting him is of vital importance. If the Broncos keep getting Manning hit, he may not hold up for the final six games and deep into the playoffs. That would obviously be a disaster for the Broncos.
Since Manning is going to play through his injury, the Broncos are going to have to do their best to make sure he stays upright. Manning is going to have to heal on the fly, with only the occasional off day of real rest.
Manning himself is responsible for his own protections more than most quarterbacks. Manning gets rid of the ball quickly and that keeps the pass rush from getting to him, but he’s also a sitting duck in the pocket. On a rare occasion when Manning doesn’t have someone open, the pressure shifts to the offensive line to make sure he’s not taking a crushing blow.
A lot of people have pointed to left tackle Chris Clark as the weak link on the offensive line and he draws a matchup with pass-rusher Tamba Hali that isn’t going to help. Hali is one of the league’s best pass-rushers, but Clark hasn’t been that bad, except for the one game against pass-rusher Robert Mathis of the Indianapolis Colts.
The Chiefs may attempt to exploit Clark’s weakness against speed by flipping Justin Houston and Hali, and the Broncos need to be ready. Keeping running back Knowshon Moreno in to block is one option, but so is throwing screens and using other tactics to slow down the rush.
What a lot of Broncos fans don’t realize is how poorly Zane Beadles has been in pass protection all year, particularly against 3-4 teams like the Chiefs. Beadles was great last year, so he continues to get a pass, but the Broncos need a good performance from him on Sunday.
The Chiefs have a great defense, but it has weaknesses that can be exploited. One of those weaknesses is their aggressiveness; the Chiefs will drive on underneath passes, leaving them vulnerable to big pass plays.
According to SportinsCharts.com, the Chiefs have allowed 18 big pass plays this season, which ranks 17th in the entire league. Keep in mind that the Chiefs have faced backup quarterbacks in four of their last five games with names like Jeff Tuel, Case Keenum, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jason Campbell. The one starter they faced was Terrelle Pryor, who is more of a runner than a passer at this point.
The group of quarterbacks the Chiefs played may end up being closer to average than bad, but there is still no reason the Chiefs should have allowed that many explosive pass plays. So far, the aggressiveness has paid off more often than it has burned the Chiefs as they have intercepted 12 passes and returned four of them for touchdowns, but Manning is easily the best and brightest quarterback they have faced.
The Chiefs have played a lot of Cover 1 coverage this season, but if they do that against the Broncos, Manning shouldn’t hesitate to pick a one-on-one matchup he likes and give his receivers a chance to come down with it down the sideline.
The expectation is that the Broncos will use the short passing game (like they always do), but especially this week with Manning nursing a sore ankle. The Broncos may be able to exploit this weakness early in the game to jump out to an early lead.
The Chiefs don’t really have the type of offense built to come from behind, so early offensive success will be critical. Let the Chiefs hang around too long and the Broncos put themselves at risk of losing the game.
In this case, the vertical passing game would also open up the underneath passes by forcing the Chiefs to keep two safeties deep. With two safeties back, the Broncos should be able to work the short and intermediate zones to keep the offense on schedule against a good defense.
Run, Run, Baby
While it might seem like running the ball favors the Chiefs—it doesn’t. The Chiefs are allowing a league-high 5.0 yards per carry this season, so they are vulnerable to the running game when the conditions are right.
Running the ball is perceived as old school now, like the Broncos would totally abandon their offense to become something they are not. The Chiefs have only allowed two rushing touchdowns, so Manning would still have to do the heavy lifting in the red zone.
The advantage to running more against the Chiefs is two-fold.
First, it keeps the defensive line honest. The defensive ends have to think about the run a little bit and can’t just pin their ears back and go after Manning. This should help keep Manning upright and in good health.
Secondly, an effective ground games helps an offense by making third downs and other downs more manageable. Any good offense moves the chains and avoids 3rd-and-longs and creating manageable conversions is a big part of that,
The Chiefs are also going to be more focused on stopping Manning, so the ground game presents an opportunity for the offense. Moreno has been a pleasant surprise, is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and leads the league in rushing touchdowns with eight.
Moreno may not add to his touchdown total, but he can certainly find some wiggle room to run. Moreno is averaging 18 touches per game this season, but he has yet to carry the ball 20 times. That could change Sunday night in the crisp air of Denver.
By running the ball and going vertical, the Broncos do what the Chiefs are least prepared to stop. The Broncos have the personnel to take a few deep shots down the field and a very capable running back, so they are well-suited to catch the Chiefs by surprise.
Throw the Chiefs off their defensive game plan, score early and the Broncos should win the game. Nothing in the NFL is ever easy and crazy moments always seem to happen in games of this magnitude, but the Broncos should win this one easily at home.