Chiefs vs. Broncos: Under-the-Radar X-Factors That Could Swing AFC West Showdown
The colossal clash between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs is loaded with star power, but an assortment of lesser-known guys may ultimately determine the outcome of this battle for AFC supremacy.
However, let's take a look at the game's biggest situational X-factors.
Chiefs: Marcus Cooper, CB
Marcus Cooper has emerged from late seventh-round obscurity to become one of the stingiest cornerbacks in the NFL in his rookie season.
Currently, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) has Cooper rated as the No. 5 overall cornerback in the game behind only Richard Sherman, Jason McCourty, Alterraun Verner and Darrelle Revis—some pretty good company.
Also per PFF, Cooper leads the NFL with a 38.5 catch-percentage allowed among cornerbacks who've played at least 25 percent of their respective team's snaps this season.
He's seventh in quarterback rating allowed, too.
Cooper's strictly an outside left cornerback; therefore, he could draw both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker if the Broncos move the two wideouts around.
Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith are the two well-known Chiefs cornerbacks, but Cooper will play a huge role in Denver.
Broncos: Manny Ramirez, C
Compared to many other players on his team, Manny Ramirez is an unknown name, and he'll have his hands full on Sunday night.
The Broncos center will be helmet-to-helmet with Dontari Poe for most of the evening.
Poe, a 6'3'', 346-pound mammoth of a man, has arguably become the most disruptive pure nose tackle in football.
PFF has him rated as the No. 10 defensive tackle/nose tackle right now, but all nine players above him primarily play in 4-3 fronts with another defensive tackle next to them on the line.
Poe's excelled as a space-eating run defender; however, he's accumulated 4.5 sacks and his 23 total pressure rank him 13th at his position.
On the flip side, PFF has Ramirez as the No. 2 center in the NFL. The seven-year veteran has allowed one sack and seven total pressures on 384 pass-blocking snaps.
Something has to give.
Chiefs: Mike DeVito, DL
Mike Devito's been overshadowed his entire NFL career.
With the New York Jets, defensive linemen Kris Jenkins and Shaun Ellis and Sione Po'uha received most of the publicity.
Because DeVito wasn't a sack machine, or a double-team-demanding nose tackle, it was easy for him to be overlooked.
This year with the Chiefs, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dontari Poe are the defensive front players snagging the headlines.
Meanwhile, DeVito is playing elite football, and the casual fan isn't aware of it.
PFF has him ranked as the ninth-most effective 3-4 defensive end heading into this huge matchup with the Broncos.
He's much more effective against the run than he is rushing the passer, but despite all of the Broncos' prolific passing numbers, they're 14th in rushing attempts this season.
DeVito will make a difference.
Broncos: Malik Jackson, DL
To most fans who don't root for the Broncos on a weekly basis, the name Malik Jackson doesn't ring a bell.
But he's an impact player on Denver's defense, a guy having an underrated season in 2013.
Jackson is currently PFF's No. 15 defensive tackle and has accumulated 25 quarterback pressures on only 194 pass-rushing snaps.
The Chiefs have allowed 26 sacks this year, but center Rodney Hudson and right guard Jon Asamoah have positive overall PFF grades.
Stopping Von Miller will be one of Kansas City's top offensive priorities, but on the interior, Jackson poses a legitimate threat.
Chiefs: Anthony Sherman, FB
Anthony Sherman is PFF's top-rated fullback, mainly due his run-blocking prowess.
While the former fifth-round selection will play a critical role leading the way for Jamaal Charles, the spry fullback could be featured in Kansas City's passing attack as well.
He has caught only 13 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown this season, but those numbers make him the Chiefs' sixth-most productive pass-catcher, more productive than tight end Anthony Fasano.
Kansas City might need to get creative on offense, and a few safe bootleg rollout passes to Sherman could be in order.
Broncos: Shaun Phillips, DL
Boy, where would the Broncos defense be without Shaun Phillips?
In Von Miller's absence to start the year, the former San Diego Charger accumulated five sacks. He's brought down the quarterback on two occasions since Miller has returned and has certainly filled the void left by the the departed Elvis Dumervil.
According to PFF, he's generated 27 quarterback pressures on 246 pass-rushing snaps.
His Pass-Rushing Productivity of 9.0 is better than Chandler Jones, Michael Johnson and Jared Allen among others.
With Kansas City's relatively shaky offensive line zeroing in on Miller, Phillips needs to have a big game to keep the Chiefs offense under wraps.
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