If the Kansas City Chiefs are going to make any noise in the AFC playoff picture, noise is exactly what they're going to need from Arrowhead Stadium this Sunday versus the Denver Broncos, and a lot of it.
We've learned over the past two weeks in their losses to the Broncos and San Diego Chargers that the Chiefs have a very small margin for error. It wasn't as apparent early in the season because the teams they were playing extended those margins by making costly mistakes.
Now, as they play better competition toward the end of the season and likely have a place in the AFC playoffs, even with the holidays coming up, teams won't be gifting them the same kinds of opportunities they experienced early in the season. They'll need to take advantage of anything that comes their way.
They'll also have to play perfect football because they aren't built to overcome their own costly mistakes—things like fumbles in the red zone, like they had against the Broncos, or even poor clock management from coach Andy Reid at the end of the Chargers game.
These things had huge impacts on those games because the Chiefs couldn't overcome them. On Sunday versus the Broncos, Arrowhead Stadium, the loudest stadium in the world, needs to help that margin of error for the Chiefs to have a chance in this game.
The #Chiefs-Broncos game on Sunday is officially sold out. Lots open at 10 a.m. for a 3:25 p.m. kick.— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) November 29, 2013
Margin of error in the two losses
In their first meeting against the Broncos, the Chiefs couldn't sustain enough drives to put enough points on the board to win the game. But they had an opportunity when the Broncos fumbled the ball on their own 27-yard line late in the first quarter.
What did the Chiefs do with that opportunity?
Fullback Anthony Sherman fumbled the ball on the very next play and gave the Broncos the ball back on their 16-yard line.
Sure, it was just the first quarter and there was "lotta ballgame left," but for the Chiefs to have beaten the Broncos, they absolutely needed to take advantage of that opportunity.
How did the Broncos respond to that turnover?
They went 86 yards in five plays for the touchdown, highlighted by the 70-yard pass-and-catch from Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas on 3rd-and-5. The drive ended with a nine-yard touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas.
This sequence of events gave the Broncos the 7-0 lead. That three-minute span between the two turnovers and subsequent touchdown, even in the first quarter, was the margin of error for which the Chiefs couldn't overcome.
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Against the Chargers, it was the coaching and defense that provided the margin of error for the Chiefs. Taking out the obvious effect of losing their top two pass-rushers in Tamba Hali and Justin Houston in the first half, the Chiefs still had an opportunity to win this game.
With under two minutes to play and trailing by three points, the Chiefs were deep in Chargers territory at the 16-yard line. After an 11-yard completion to Dexter McCluster and with 18 seconds on the game clock, Reid took a timeout, baffling most people paying attention.
The Chiefs scored a touchdown on the very next play to give them the lead, which baffled some people as well. It wasn't about taking the lead, but it was about doing it so quickly.
The Chiefs left the Chargers plenty of time to drive down the field, which they did.
As big of an issue as it was regarding Reid and "timeout-gate," the Chiefs defense simply needed to stop Rivers from going the length of the field to win the game, and it couldn't do it. Both of those things contributed to the margin of error for the Chiefs' loss to the Chargers.
There's a lot of blame focused at Reid for his decision to use the timeout, and it's justified because it was a bad decision, but if the Chiefs can't stop a team from driving the length of the field on them in just over a minute at Arrowhead Stadium to win a game, they have bigger problems than just the use of a timeout.
Upcoming matchup with the Denver Broncos
On paper, this game doesn't look like it should be all that close.
The Chiefs were torched in the second half against the Chargers for 38 points by Rivers and company without Houston and Hali. Although Hali looks like he might play against the Broncos, there's no denying the loss of Houston changes the Chiefs defense dramatically. He's arguably been their best player this season.
On the other hand, the Broncos are on pace to break the 2007 New England Patriots record for most points in a season (589) in NFL history. They're currently averaging 39 points per game and projected for 624, although the Chiefs did hold them to a season-low 27 points in their first meeting.
This is another game in which the margin of error is very, very small for the Chiefs. They cannot afford to make mistakes and have to capitalize on any mistakes the Broncos make.
They'll need help from Arrowhead Stadium as well.
In crucial situations—a false start, one of the Broncos tackles being a half-count late on his kick-step because of the crowd noise, etc.—these small things could help the Chiefs widen (even if only slightly) that margin of error.
Small margin for offense
When you're going up against an offense that has a legitimate shot at being the greatest of all time, there's no settling for field goals. The Chiefs need to punch it in when they get to the red zone and need to capitalize with some big plays.
There are dozens of times throughout the course of a game where a quarterback will miss a read or miss a receiver who happens to be open. It's just part of the game and happens with even the best quarterbacks, but this play below from Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense is the kind of small detail they can't afford to miss against the Broncos.
This play is from the Chiefs' first matchup with the Broncos. It's 3rd-and-7, deep in their own territory.
The Chiefs are in 11-personnel and motion Dexter McCluster out of the backfield and stack him behind Dwayne Bowe on the open side of the formation. The defensive back follows McCluster across the formation, many times signaling man coverage.
The Broncos are in a single-high look, although the strong safety does get deep after the snap. You can see press coverage on Dwayne Bowe and the defensive back head-up on McCluster after the motion, another sign of man coverage. If they were playing zone, he'd be on the outside of McCluster.
Once Smith gets the ball, he sees Bowe coming across the middle and trailed by the defensive back. The middle linebacker then takes a little shot at Bowe and picks him up coming across his face.
As soon as Smith saw the trailing defensive back, he could have known there was nobody in the flat to cover Charles. At that point, he knew there was man coverage, which fit his pre-snap read, and there was nobody else on the open side of the formation besides the free safety, who was 13 yards off the line of scrimmage.
The Broncos were showing man coverage pre-snap, and the post-snap read showed the same thing; knowing that Charles was going to leak out into the flat should have been known.
The issue isn't that Smith missed an open receiver; quarterbacks miss open receivers all the time. It's that all of the pre-snap information told him there was nobody to cover Charles in the flat, and it didn't translate to the field.
Getting the ball to Jamaal Charles in the open field should be the No. 1 goal for the Chiefs offense, and the opportunity was presented perfectly here.
There could be a dozen excuses why Smith made this read, for reasons only known by those who play at the highest level, but nobody should be surprised to see this same play and formation again this time around, because it's exactly what the Chiefs should be looking for.
This is just a small example of the kind of breaks the Chiefs need to take advantage of.
Small margin for the defense
The shallow crossing routes have become the "new thing" for NFL offenses, and they've given the Chiefs defense enormous problems over the past four weeks. That has been discussed ad nauseam on a variety of platforms.
The Broncos offense also happens to run them very, very well.
But something else the Broncos do well with their short passing game centers around Wes Welker. That's not a huge shock to anyone.
To illustrate how hard it is to defend Welker and these routes he and Manning seem to be so comfortable with together, there's a combination of plays below.
On this first play, Welker is going to run the wheel route, which turns into a back-shoulder throw because Manning is very good and very smart. This is one of those "pick" or "rub" routes that have gained popularity it seems, and for good reason—they're extremely tough to defend.
The outside receiver, Demaryius Thomas, fakes as if he's going to run a slant, but he's really only trying to disrupt Brandon Flowers at the slot corner position on Welker.
Flowers has two choices right here: He can go under the block or over the top. He makes the safer, wiser decision by going over the top and negating a potential huge gain, but the back-shoulder throw from Manning (represented by the blue line), makes this play almost impossible to defend in this manner.
If Flowers goes underneath the route, it doesn't necessarily become a back-shoulder throw anymore. If Welker has a step on Flowers, he might just continue to wheel and try and get over the top of the defense for a huge gain.
That play was early in the first quarter.
Another play late in the first quarter shows a wrinkle to that same scenario. It's another chess match between Welker, Manning, Flowers and the Chiefs defense. But this is really a three-man cat-and-mouse game.
The setup is similar except this time it's with Eric Decker on the outside instead of Thomas. They start with the same action as the previous play.
Once Flowers committed to the wheel and getting over the top of it, Welker broke off his route and was wide open. This is extremely difficult for Flowers to cover on his own.
Whether it's keeping defensive linemen in the throwing lanes or switching up the linebackers' drops, the Chiefs are going to have to find a new way to defend this situation. The key is to mix it up as much as you can as well.
Manning was getting rid of the ball so quickly that the pass rush was rendered useless on the night. Considering the Chiefs won't have one of their best pass-rushers in this game anyways, maybe the Chiefs will be able to mix up their looks and not be quite as predictable with their schemes.
The way the Chiefs play these situations defensively and the play above from the offense are just examples of the smaller details that play into the margin of error.
It's because the Broncos are so good at these quick passes that you have to be confident and absolute in your defensive scheme. There is no room for tentativeness.
Offensively, the Chiefs know they have to consistently put up points because the Broncos offense is going to score. Taking advantage of plays where Charles is left one-on-one in the open field with only a safety between him and the end zone, those are the plays and situations you have to capitalize on.
What's it going to take for the Chiefs to win?
Besides the obvious things in not turning the ball over and eliminating big plays from the Broncos offense, the Chiefs will need some help from the crowd in this game.
The saying "home-field advantage" is only an advantage if the crowd is able to affect the game. Manning's ability to change plays and communicate non-verbally won't change what he does or how effective he is individually, but if it affects the guys around him, then he's in turn affected.
If the crowd can turn a couple of Broncos 3rd-and-2s or 3s to 3rd-and-7s or 8s because of false starts, that could be the difference. Also, that's only if the Chiefs are able to capitalize on the opportunity.
The margin of error is small for the Chiefs, and that hasn't changed for any game this season. But a couple of mistakes from the Broncos, with a little help from the crowd, and they have a chance.