We saw these two teams go at it two weeks ago, but this time things are different. For starters, the game is going to be on Kansas City's turf at Arrowhead Stadium. The Broncos have historically struggled on the road at Arrowhead regardless of how the teams stack up on paper.
Peyton Manning is still dealing with the ankle problems he’s had for the last month or so. For the fourth week in a row Manning missed practice on Wednesday.
He discussed missing practice after lifting weights on Wednesday. "I'd certainly like to be back out there. This was [Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos] 'Greek' and the coaches' orders but I'd prefer to be back out there and hopefully by next week that may be so."
The last time the Chiefs played the Broncos Manning went untouched. Kansas City failed to sack Manning or even get a single quarterback hit in the game.
The Chiefs are now going to be without one of their best pass-rushers in this game. Justin Houston (elbow) is going to miss the Broncos game due to injury. Tamba Hali is also banged up with a minor ankle injury.
I talked to Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, and he expressed confidence that Hali would be ready for the game on Sunday: "He’s feeling better every day, so if he continues to do that then he has a pretty good chance to play. His desire to play is great, obviously. So we’ll just see how it goes."
Denver's offensive line has done a much better job over the last two weeks, and it should be able to adequately protect Manning in Week 13.
The running back position for the Broncos may be different on Sunday. Knowshon Moreno received 27 carries against the Chiefs two weeks ago and followed that up with a 37-carry performance against the New England Patriots last week before suffering what is considered a minor ankle injury late in the game. His status for this week is still up in the air.
Interim Denver head coach Jack Del Rio had no update to provide on Moreno after practice on Wednesday, saying, "No, he's day-to-day. He didn’t go today. I felt pretty good about the report I got back and we'll just see how the week goes."
If the Broncos don't have Moreno then they'll have to turn to a trio of young backs.
Montee Ball should be the next back up, but there's some question about his status with the team. Ball has fumbled three times this season, including one against the Patriots. He was not known as a fumbler in college, but Ball clearly has a problem with ball security in the pros.
C.J. Anderson is an undrafted rookie with intriguing upside. He's the most powerful back on the roster, but he's not as well versed in the offense as he needs to be. Anderson also bobbled an exchange (Manning was credited with the fumble) against the Patriots, and the team is taking his ball-security issues seriously.
Ronnie Hillman may get back on the field this week. He’s been inactive since a Week 7 fumble against the Indianapolis Colts near the goal line.
Manning talked about how Sunday isn’t the test for these young running backs. They must prove their ball security during the week of practice:
I think certainly you try to help them out if you feel like they need it during the game. We try to treat practice like a game and maybe you try not to help them out as much in practice so you can find out maybe what they’re not as comfortable with so you can kind of know what you might need to help them with come game time. As I always remind guys, the test is kind of during the week in practice. Sunday, it’s not a test. I’m not going to not tell you something hoping that you get it right. Sometimes that’s a hard way to find out if you didn’t know it. But we try to treat practice like a game, with the crowd noise, with blitzes, going no-huddle. Coach Del Rio has done a good job of simulating game like situations—‘Hey, it’s third-and-5, offense needs a first down to win the game. Let’s go.’ And so it’s a game mentality from that standpoint. Certainly, when you are in the shot gun and you have a young running back, back there next to you, I encourage those guys to ask as well. If they don’t ask then I assume that they know. It’s been pretty healthy communication between me and the young running backs.
All three young RBs (Montee, Ronnie, CJ) will have to prove they can hold onto the rock this week in practice #Broncos HUGE issue for team— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) November 27, 2013
The Broncos have questions at the running back position, but their wide receivers are one of the best groups in the game today.
They should also get tight end Julius Thomas back from the knee injury he suffered in the first game against the Chiefs two weeks ago. Thomas missed the game against the Patriots with this injury, but most expect him to play on Sunday.
He was limited in practice on Wednesday, but I felt he was moving without restriction during the media portion of practice.
Julius Thomas moving without restriction at practice today. #Broncos TE looking good.— Cecil Lammey (@cecillammey) November 27, 2013
Defensively, the Broncos keep improving every week with Von Miller back. However, this week (and for the rest of the season) they’ll have to play without starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson. "Big Vick" was put on season-ending injured reserve with a hip injury he suffered in the game against the Patriots.
It will be time for rookie first-round pick Sylvester Williams to prove his worth. Williams has been inactive for four games this season, and he has yet to make the impact that some expected after he was drafted with a premium pick.
After practice on Wednesday Del Rio talked about Williams and his role going forward:
Yeah, it's time for the next guys to step up and play bigger roles. It’s not just Sylvester. [DT] Mitch Unrein is a very capable guy and we signed [DT] Sione Fua today as a backup tackle. He’ll learn the system and get in the rotation. Very much what we have to do and we’re fortunate we do have depth there. I know that Mitch and 'Sly' will both do their very best to fill in there for 'Vick' (DT Kevin Vickerson).
The secondary may have a different look as well in Week 13. Cornerback Champ Bailey may be able to play after missing most of the season with a foot injury. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is questionable for this game with a shoulder injury he suffered against the Patriots.
The Chiefs offense will pretty much look the same as it did two weeks ago.
Quarterback Alex Smith will need to again show that he can win a high-scoring game if the Broncos score more than 25 points on Sunday. Smith’s career record is 2-25 when an opponent scores 25 or more against him.
I talked to superstar running back Jamaal Charles on Wednesday, and I asked him if the team had confidence in Smith despite his poor record in high-scoring games.
"I think he can. In this system—[Chiefs head coach] Andy Reid’s system—we can put points on the board. We haven’t really had a chance to connect like that this year besides the San Diego game, but I hope we can continue to move and show improvement in the offensive schemes that he came here with."
Charles told me he felt great physically, and emotionally he couldn’t be happier.
"I'm loving everything about this system. It’s given me great opportunities to show my abilities on the offensive side as well. Alex is adjusting as well. His talent is showing as well. I know we’re playing against a great team—against the Denver Broncos—but it’s when you have to step up right there. Be a great player, be a great quarterback, be a great running back and be a great team to beat a team like this."
Stopping Charles is key for the Broncos. In the last game the Broncos held Charles below 100 all-purpose yards. His 72 total yards were the lowest statistical output of the season. (His previous low was 96 yards vs. the Buffalo Bills.)
Let’s take a look at how the Denver Broncos will attack the Kansas City Chiefs on both sides of the ball.
When the Broncos Run the Ball
The Broncos may have a different look for their ground game if Moreno can’t play. Ball could be the starter if the team trusts him enough to hang onto the rock. He is an efficient runner who has looked more decisive as the season has gone on.
This play below illustrates what the Broncos may do against the Chiefs. They line up in the shotgun formation to keep Manning further away from the pass rush. Ball then gets the handoff and follows pulling right guard Louis Vasquez through the middle.
If we see more of Anderson, then the play design will be fairly simple. Anderson is a no-nonsense runner who loves to initiate contact. His 10-yard burst is quicker than Ball’s, and Anderson has a much stronger lower body.
There’s a chance Hillman sees action in this game. His speed an big-play ability could be a great weapon against an aggressive defense like the Chiefs.
When the Broncos Pass the Ball
Protecting Manning will be the key for the Broncos. The Chiefs defense may be without Houston, but it will still present a threat to the Broncos' offensive line.
The Broncos could use more shotgun formation to counter what the Kansas City defense tries up front. They may also move the pocket and use Manning on rollouts to keep him away from pressure.
The play below shows the Patriots putting seven in the box against Manning on a third-down play. The Broncos counter that by going with an empty backfield and five receivers.
As the ball is snapped the Patriots back off the aggressive look, and they send seven into coverage. The Broncos use three short routes and two deep routes to confuse the Patriots defense. Manning makes a stick throw to tight end Jacob Tamme in tight coverage on the outside.
The Broncos may not use a ton of deep routes against the Chiefs, but they will take some deep shots from time to time to keep the defense honest.
When the Chiefs Run the Ball
The Chiefs have a fairly simple, yet effective, system when running the ball. Stopping Charles is the key for the Broncos.
Charles has speed to get to the edge, so the Broncos need to play with incredible discipline. They also need to make sure to wrap up the ball-carrier as Charles does a good job of bouncing off contact.
The great thing about Charles is that he doesn’t try to bounce everything outside, and he will pound it between the tackles if need be.
In the play below we see a counter play. Smith initially flashes the ball to the left side, but as he drops back he pivots and hands the ball off to Charles on the right side. Charles runs up the gut for about four yards.
When the Chiefs Pass the Ball
The Chiefs may have to go through the air in order to keep up with the high-powered Broncos offense. They may try a few deep shots to guys like Donnie Avery or Dwayne Bowe.
Most of their passing attempts will be close to the line of scrimmage. We’ll see plenty of screen passes for guys like Charles and fullback Anthony Sherman and short to intermediate throws to tight ends Sean McGrath and Anthony Fasano.
In the play below we see Charles motion out of the backfield before the snap of the ball. The Chiefs run four vertical routes so they can sneak Sherman out on a fullback screen.
The way to slow down a pass rush is to utilize draw plays and screen passes. The Chiefs will use these types of plays frequently against Denver.
There is a ton on the line for both teams on Sunday. If the Chiefs want to win the AFC West then they need to take down the Broncos. Same thing goes for the Broncos.
This game could mean the difference between playing at home or playing on the road in the playoffs.
Denver can’t simply do what they did last time to secure a victory. The Chiefs have likely prepared for the things that worked well for Denver in Week 11.
Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase is one of the more creative coordinators in the game today, and he should have a few wrinkles in the offense to use against the Chiefs.
Like the last game, the magic number is 25. If the Broncos can get to 25 points, then Smith and the Chiefs may have a difficult time coming out on top.
This should be a great game, and nearly a must-win for the Broncos. It’s must-see TV that all NFL fans will enjoy.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/Statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.