When: 8:30 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Arrowhead Stadium; Kansas City, Missouri. TV: NBC.
The matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) and Denver Broncos (8-3) lost some of its shine last Thursday when the Chiefs lost against the previously winless Oakland Raiders. Still, there's much riding on Sunday night's game for both teams.
With a victory, the Chiefs would pull back into a tie for first place in the AFC West with the Broncos and perhaps the San Diego Chargers, depending on the outcome of their game against the Baltimore Ravens. A loss would end the Chiefs' realistic hopes of winning the division title and relegate them to chasing a wild-card berth.
Denver, with a win, would banish a rival from the division race and remain at least a game ahead of the Chargers.
ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold preview Sunday night's game.
Teicher: C.J. Anderson had a big game against the Dolphins last week, rushing for 167 yards. Is he a better alternative as the featured back for the Broncos than Montee Ball or Ronnie Hillman? How has he energized Denver’s running game?
Legwold: The Broncos have learned a painful lesson in their three losses this season, especially the one in St. Louis two weeks ago when they ran the ball 10 times. The simple fact is Peyton Manning can make can’t-run, can’t-block games work because of his ability to deliver the ball quickly after the snap, but he is at his best when the Broncos have some kind of run game and can keep the area in front of him in the pocket clean because defenses can’t simply overload the A-gaps and come after him. Anderson was a huge part of that against the Dolphins, who came in among the league’s most blitz-happy teams but couldn’t turn it loose because of the run game. He is the guy right now as neither Ball nor Hillman will play against the Chiefs because of injuries. And Anderson has done well enough in pass protection -- Job 1 for Broncos running backs -- to go with what he has done on the ground, to have earned top billing when the other guys come back. The Broncos will use a rotation when everybody is healthy. They believe Hillman’s speed is an enormous threat in the passing game, but Anderson has seized the opportunity. Unless his play drops off, they will keep handing him the ball.
Jamaal Charles had just two carries in the Week 2 meeting with the Broncos, and the Chiefs still found a way to grind out 133 yards rushing in the 24-17 Broncos win. How has Charles fit in the offense since? Do you think Andy Reid sees him as a 20-carry-a-game runner?
Teicher: The Chiefs have tried to wean themselves off so much reliance on Charles but are back to facing the fact that he is their best offensive player. You will remember he left that earlier Broncos game with a foot injury and didn’t play in the next week’s game at Miami. Since then, he has been as effective as he’s ever been running the ball. His production as a receiver is way down. The Chiefs have been unable to get their screen game going with any consistency. Even last year, the Chiefs seemed to operate with a pitch count on Charles. They will blow through that if they believe that’s what they have to do to win a game. But his backup, Knile Davis, isn’t Charles' equal as a runner, pass-blocker or receiver.
Manning had a big game against Miami and ended a streak of three straight games in which he had thrown two interceptions. Was this just a case of Manning being human, or had opponents maybe started to figure out Denver’s passing game?
Legwold: New England, Oakland and St. Louis were all able to create pressure in the middle of the field -- the Raiders for a half anyway -- and keep Manning from striding into throws. That meant Manning couldn’t really drive the ball wide, out past the numbers, which limited his options. Manning did throw for 438, 340 and 389 yards in those games, so "handling" Manning is always relative. The Patriots and Rams were also particularly physical with the Broncos' receivers, jostling them at every opportunity before the catch and tackling well after the catch, limiting Denver's catch-and-run plays. Overall, the biggest difference between what the Broncos do with Manning and what Manning did with the Colts for so many years is that the Broncos move receivers all over the formation, whereas the Colts usually lined up players in the same spots. It makes it difficult to get a bead on the matchups for the defense; the Dolphins had trouble when the Broncos put a tight end out wide and put Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders or both in the slot. Miami then usually had a defensive back on a tight end out wide and linebackers trying to cover receivers in the middle of the field, which is exactly what the Broncos wanted. In the end, it comes down to not just pressure off the edge, because Manning identifies that quickly, but pressure in the middle of the field.
The Broncos, because of injuries at linebacker, have used more specialty packages on defense of late, especially against the Dolphins. How would you expect the Chiefs to attack the defense? Despite few teams having anything consistent in the run game against the Broncos, do you think the Chiefs will pound away a bit?
Teicher: I would think that plays into the Chiefs’ favor if the Broncos use extra defensive backs against regular Chiefs personnel. It’s unusual to see Andy Reid’s teams pound away with the running game, but the Chiefs did it a couple of weeks ago against Seattle. They rushed 30 times for 190 yards that day, and quarterback Alex Smith attempted just 16 passes. I wouldn’t expect numbers like that from Smith and the Chiefs on Sunday night, but Charles is their best player and the Chiefs need to establish the run, if only to keep Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware honest.
The Patriots are a popular pick to represent the AFC in this season's Super Bowl, but I’m sticking with the Broncos, my preseason pick. Success in the playoffs usually depends on the matchups, but do you like the Broncos’ ability to get back to the Super Bowl again this season, keeping in mind they may have to play the conference championship game in New England?
Legwold: Top to bottom, despite the team’s warts at times this season, it is still a better overall group than last year’s team that advanced to the Super Bowl. That said, this year’s version hasn’t always played with the close-the-deal efficiency last year’s team did. Two spots where the Broncos largely stood pat in the offseason -- offensive line and the return game -- have been significant issues, especially the offensive front. The offensive line has been a riddle for much of the season; the Dolphins win is the exception at this point. It's a group that is largely the same as last season with Ryan Clady back at left tackle after he missed all but two games in 2013, and the line has not played nearly as well as it did last season. The Broncos have already made four changes up front, including two at right tackle, as they look for a way to kick-start a group that has played on its heels for much of the season. It’s a foundation position, and unless the Broncos' play looks more like it did last Sunday, those troubles would be big enough to keep them out of the title game.
Was the Raiders loss indicative of some issues as far as the Chiefs’ postseason profile, or are they closer to the team that won five in a row? Do you think they have the chops to win on the road in New England or Denver in the postseason?
Teicher: The Chiefs have some flaws that will make things difficult against high-scoring teams such as the Patriots or Broncos, no matter where the games are played. They get few big plays on offense, so their margin for error is slim. Believe it or not, the Chiefs’ longest pass play of the season is just 34 yards. It seems like Manning and the Broncos get one of those a quarter. The Chiefs have forced just nine turnovers and are not getting as many long kick returns as they did last season, so they are not providing short fields for the offense. As a result, the Chiefs have to be remarkably efficient. They have to be good on third down, which they were until they got to Oakland, where they were just 2-for-14 on third down. That helps explain why they lost.