Chiefs vs. Broncos: Who Has the Edge at Every Position?
There's no question what the biggest matchup in Week 11 is.
On Sunday night, the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs travel to Denver, where they will face the Broncos with first place in the AFC West and the best record in the conference on the line.
It's a classic strength vs. strength matchup: Denver's high-powered offense vs. the Chiefs' smothering defense.
Let's take a position-by-position look at this Sunday night showdown, to get a better feel for which team has the inside track on emerging from Week 11 with a win.
To this point in the season, the Kansas City Chiefs have to be very pleased with the performance of quarterback Alex Smith.
Granted, Smith's 1,919 passing yards and nine scores are hardly eye-popping numbers, but the 29-year-old has made plays when he needed to and taken care of the football.
With all that said, however, it's pretty clear who has the edge at the position in this game.
Manning's worst day yardage-wise this year (295) is better than Smith's best (288).
Yes, part of that is a function of the two offenses, but c'mon...
With all due respect, Alex Smith isn't Peyton Manning.
One of the biggest surprises for the Denver Broncos this year has been the play of tailback Knowshon Moreno.
The fifth-year veteran is finally playing like the first-round pick he was coming out of the University of Georgia. Moreno is averaging over 90 total yards a game, he's been effective as both a runner and receiver and the 26-year-old is well on his way to setting career highs across the board.
However, much like the last slide, this contest was over before it started.
Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs leads the AFC with 725 rushing yards. With receiving yards factored in Charles is already over 1,100 total yards on the season.
Moreno's a very good back, but Charles is the best in the conference.
They have combined for over 150 receptions, 2,000 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns so far this season.
Welker and Thomas each has as many touchdown grabs (nine) as the Chiefs do as a team.
Kansas City's leading receiver (Donnie Avery) has 396 yards on the season. That would place Avery fifth on the Broncos, behind all three star wideouts and tight end Julius Thomas.
Part of it's scheme, but the huge gap in production also denotes a significant gap in talent between the receiving corps of each club.
If Knowshon Moreno has been a pleasant surprise in 2013, then tight end Julius Thomas has been a revelation.
The 25-year-old, who barely played before this season, ranks second in the NFL among tight ends with nine touchdown grabs. His 547 receiving yards ranks fourth at the position.
Meanwhile, the tight end spot for the Chiefs has been an afterthought this year.
With both Tony Moeaki and Travis Kelce out for the year, Sean McGrath has been pressed into service as the starter, and while McGrath has been OK neither the second-year pro or Anthony Fasano are much of an offensive weapon.
Things haven't gone quite as planned for the Denver Broncos in 2013 along the offensive line.
Injuries to both starting tackles (including cornerstone left tackle Ryan Clady) have had an impact. However, the Denver front has still played well as a unit, ranking sixth in run-blocking and second in pass-blocking according to Football Outsiders.
For the Chiefs, things have been a bit more up-and-down. Football Outsiders ranks tackle Branden Albert and company numero uno where opening holes for Jamaal Charles is concerned, but the Chiefs are a moribund 25th in pass protection.
So why am I giving the Chiefs the edge in this game?
That's simple. The Chiefs, with their excellent duo of rush linebackers, are perfectly positioned to best take advantage of the injuries that have beset the Broncos up front.
It's a close call borne as much of situation as talent, but Kansas City gets the nod.
The defensive lines in Kansas City and Denver are two very different units.
The line in Kansas City is a three-man front, where nose tackle Dontari Poe and his compatriots are charged with holding the point of attack so the linebackers behind them can clean up.
In Denver, it's a four-man front, and there's more pressure on the likes of Derek Wolfe and Shaun Phillips to create pressure on their own.
Frankly, both these lines are adequate, but nothing special. The Broncos top-five run defense has more to do with opponents falling behind and abandoning the run than it does a formidable front four, while the Chiefs rank 25th in run defense.
For both the Broncos and the Chiefs, the linebackers are the heart of the defense.
In Denver, the Broncos have Wesley Woodyard, an athletic and underrated player, back and healthy. In Woodyard's absence, youngster Danny Trevathan has emerged as a more than capable player in his own right.
Most importantly, strong-side man Von Miller, who began this year by serving a six-game suspension, has now logged a sack in back-to-back games and looks to be back in All-Pro form.
However, as good as the Denver linebackers may be, Kansas City's are even better.
Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson is one of the very best in the NFL at his position. Only Stephen Tulloch of the Detroit Lions has graded higher this year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Then there's the matter of outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. The pair have combined for 20 sacks this season. Both rank in the top five in the NFL in sacks and among the top-five 3-4 outside linebackers in the league per PFF.
Denver's linebackers are really good.
Kansas City's are better.
Even the best of teams have a weak spot.
For the Denver Broncos, it's the secondary.
The Broncos rank dead last in the AFC in pass defense, allowing nearly 288 yards a game through the air through nine games.
Granted, some of that is attributable to Manning and the offense forcing opponents to throw. More still can be chalked up to the absence of cornerback Champ Bailey for much of the year.
However, the fact remains that Denver has been susceptible through the air in 2013.
The Chiefs? Not so much.
Kansas City ranks sixth in the league in pass defense, allowing just over 208 yards a game. In Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper, the Chiefs have a rock-solid trio of experienced and/or talented cornerbacks.
Throw in safety Eric Berry, and you have the AFC's best defensive backfield.
There's really no contest between the two teams at kicker, especially with the game being played in Denver.
With all due respect to Ryan Succop, Matt Prater is Pro Football Focus' top kicker and a player who hasn't missed an attempt this year. That includes three from over 50 yards out, and in the friendly confines of Mile High anything inside 55 is well within his range.
In a weird twist, the opposing punters in this game are brothers. We'll give the edge here to Dustin Colquitt of the Chiefs over younger brother Britton, if only because we didn't realize until just now that the Broncos had a punter.
Both teams have dangerous return men in Dexter McCluster (Chiefs) and Trindon Holliday (Broncos), and this has the makings of a game which could be decided by a big play on special teams.
On one level, this looks like an easy call.
Andy Reid might as well start clearing off space on his mantle for the 2013 Coach of the Year award. He deserves a great deal of credit for resurrecting both a Chiefs team that won two games last year and his own reputation as a head coach.
Remember, no one was exactly stunned when he was let go by the Eagles.
Combined with the health issues of John Fox (and Jack Del Rio's elevation to interim head coach) it would appear that the Chiefs have a clear edge here, especially coming out of the bye week (where Reid has historically enjoyed great success).
However, let's be real. The offensive coordinator for the Broncos wears a jersey with an "18" on it, and you can bet that Manning is going to try to dictate the tempo.
Still, Reid's 13-1 after a bye in his head coaching career.
By our count, that's five for Kansas City, three for Denver and two pushes.
Add in home field advantage for the Broncos, and you have what amounts to a very even game.
The tone of this game will determine the winner.
If the game turns into any kind of a shootout, the Broncos will win easy. Kansas City absolutely has to get pressure on Peyton Manning and keep him from settling into a rhythm.
It doesn't matter how good your defense is. When they're firing on all cylinders, the Broncos can pile the points on anyone.
However, if the Chiefs get after a gimpy Manning and keep the score relatively low, then we're talking a whole different ball game.
Were this game at Arrowhead, Manning's bad wheel and the extra week to get ready would be enough to swing this pick.
With that said though the game's in Denver, and Alex Smith and the Kansas City passing game just hasn't shown enough to trust them to score 30-plus points.
The Pick: Denver 30, Kansas City 21