Sunday’s game between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs isn’t just two divisional rivals jockeying for position. Via the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s only the fourth game since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to feature two teams with at least eight wins and no more than one loss, and the first of those four to feature divisional opponents.
Here’s a look at four key matchups that will play a major role in deciding Sunday’s showdown.
Broncos receivers vs Chiefs secondary
Letting Broncos’ receivers run after the catch is a recipe for disaster. The Broncos have had 51 pass plays with at least 10 yards after the catch this season, most of any team in the league.
Peyton Manning's average throw this season is 7.8 yards downfield, his lowest in the last eight seasons. Almost half of his passing yards have come after the catch (49 percent) this season, as opposed to 38 percent from 2006-12.
Demaryius Thomas in particular has been productive in the screen game. Thomas has caught 11 screen passes, producing league-high totals in yards (212) and touchdowns (three). 214 of Thomas’ 212 yards (his average screen is caught behind the line of scrimmage) have come after the catch.
As good as the Chiefs’ pass defense has been this season, this is an area of concern. The Chiefs have allowed 5.8 yards after catch per reception this season, ninth most in the league, despite facing none of the top six teams in total YAC this season.
Broncos offensive line vs Chiefs pass rush
Peyton Manning This Season
The Chiefs have 36 sacks this season, recording one on 9.4% of opponent dropbacks, both best in the NFL.
Normally difficult to sack, an ankle injury has made Peyton Manning an easier target in recent weeks.
Manning has been pressured (sacked, hit while throwing or under duress) on almost one-quarter of his dropbacks in the last three games, or more than twice as many dropbacks per game (10.3) than in his first six (4.8).
Von Miller vs Chiefs offensive line
Von Miller's Week 7 return from a suspension hasn’t changed Denver’s sack output very much at first glance. The Broncos averaged 3 sacks per game with Miller and 2.8 without Miller.
A closer look shows Miller’s impact is bigger than sack totals. In the last three games, the Denver defense has pressured quarterbacks on 34% of dropbacks, third best in the league and a noted improvement on their 25% in the first six weeks.
There isn’t any one player who’s going to be responsible for stopping the two-time All-Pro Miller, who has played 129 snaps on the left side of the line and 65 on the right in his three games back. Expect both Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert and right tackle Eric Fisher, this year’s first-overall draft pick, to contend with Miller off the edge.
Chiefs offense vs the clock
ManningSince Manning joined the Broncos, Denver is 12-0 when winning the time of possession battle and 9-4 when the opponent has the edge. Teams simply cannot let Manning control the clock and expect to win.
To have a chance Sunday, 20 first downs is a good starting point. Since the start of 2001, Manning opponents “held” Peyton’s teams to a .636 winning percentage when they gained at least 20 first downs.
Losing 64 percent of games hardly reflects a winning “strategy” for the Chiefs, but Manning is 80-17 (.825) when opponents don’t record at least 20 first downs. The best way to beat him is to not give him the chance to beat you.