The Denver Broncos have won five of their last seven trips to Arrowhead Stadium. The Kansas City Chiefs haven't defeated the Broncos at home since week 13 of the 2010 season. In Peyton Manning's tenure in Denver, he has never lost to the Chiefs.
With the exception of the Broncos week 17 38-3 victory in 2012, every game Manning has won vs the Chiefs, both on the road and at home, have been decided by 10 points or less. The Chiefs are coming off of a humiliating loss to the Oakland Raiders, who had been win-less.
They also just received news that they'll be without their star strong safety, Eric Berry, for the foreseeable future, as he must focus on beating lymphoma. Berry's tragedy could serve to galvanize the Chiefs and refocus their efforts.
At 8-3, the Broncos have a one game lead over the Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers in the AFC West. With the log-jam of competitive teams in the AFC North, none of whom have more than 4 losses, the Chiefs know that the odds of them making the playoffs as a Wildcard this season are looking slimmer and slimmer, as time wears on.
Translation: in the eyes of the Chiefs, this game could be for all the chips. And accordingly, they will come out swinging. Of all the games the Broncos have played thus far, this one could be the most important in determining their post-season fortunes. With how well the New England Patriots are playing; looking unbeatable at home, the Broncos know that in order for them to repeat as AFC Champions, the road to the Super Bowl must go through Denver.
At 9-2, the Patriots are in the driver's seat. However, they have a very difficult road game this week vs Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Tom Brady and company must also travel next week to San Diego. The Chargers have a penchant for winning the games they're expected to lose, and losing the games they're expected to win. That game could go either way.
So, it is conceivable that if the Broncos can win-out, from here on, they could win the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed for the third-straight season. But first, they'll have to take care of business on the road, vs a team who could very well be fighting for their 2014 lives. Let's get to the keys.
Strive For Offensive Balance Again
In last week's keys, I talked about how the Broncos absolutely had to get their ground game going and find a way to balance their offensive attack, after only rushing the ball 9 times the week before vs the St. Louis Rams. Against the Miami Dolphins, they heeded that call with gusto.
They were the epitome of balance, as they rushed the ball 35 times, and passed it 35. Committing themselves to the run paid off big-time, as they rushed for 201 yards and effectively neutralized the potent Dolphins pass rush. C.J. Anderson led the way with his first career 100-yard rushing game, ending the day with 167 yards and 1 touchdown.
There's no question that having tight end, Virgil Green, healthy and in the lineup, paid huge dividends. He is the catalyst for the team's rushing production. And his presence last Sunday also made his teammates better on the offensive line. For the first time this season, every starting lineman graded out in the positive via ProFootballFocus.
To win a tough divisional game on the road, in a playoff-like atmosphere, offensive coordinator, Adam Gase, must remain committed to balance. The Chiefs are an aggressive defense. And like the Dolphins, they have two excellent pass rushers in Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. To keep them on their heels and force them to think, rather than simply pin back their ears and get after the QB, Gase must prescribe a healthy dose of Anderson and Juwan Thompson.
With 473 yards from scrimmage over the last three weeks, there is no reason to turn away from Anderson. He is in the zone and as such, it is incumbent upon Gase and Manning to feed the hot hand. If the Broncos stay committed to balance, the depleted Chiefs defense will have a very small chance at stopping them.
The Run Defense Must Get Back On Track
Although the Broncos currently sport the NFL's No. 2 rush defense, there's no question that they've taken a step back in that regard over the last two weeks. On the season, they're only allowing an impressive 75.5 yards on the ground per game, but over the last two games, they've given up 228 rushing yards.
To allow almost 50 yards more per game than your average, against two teams who do not have a star running back, is cause for concern. Between a combination of injuries to the linebacker corps, lack of focus and execution, the Broncos have regressed.
But they must get back on track this week. Jamaal Charles is one of the NFL's premier RBs. And his backup, Knile Davis, is no slouch either. Chiefs head coach, Andy Reid, has remained committed to the running game this year and it has been the primary offensive weapon for them.
In their game prep, the Chiefs have surely noticed the Broncos negative trend of stopping the run recently. They will test the mettle of Derek Wolfe, Terrance Knighton and Sylvester Williams. The biggest concern this week, is whether the Broncos will have their leading tackler, Brandon Marshall. Marshall is in the league's mandated concussion protocol.
The good news is that Marshall practiced in full today, and is listed as "probable" for Sunday night. Now it's just a matter of figuring out the other LB position in the middle, with Nate Irving done for the season. Will it be the rookie, Lamin Barrow? Will it be Steven Johnson or perhaps even T.J. Ward? Whichever player(s) gets the call, shutting down Charles is priority No. 1.
Force Alex Smith To Throw Outside The Numbers
In this week's game preview, I made mention that Smith is yet to connect with a wide receiver for a TD this season. That ignominious statistic sheds light on one of the limitations of the Chiefs signal caller.
He protects the ball; sometimes to a fault. Other than crossing routes underneath, and WR curls, he doesn't often target his outside weapons, in an effort to play smart with the football. Even though Dwayne Bowe is technically the team's leading receiver (44-551), the real aerial threat who the Broncos must take away is tight end, Travis Kelce.
Over the last four weeks, Smith has targeted Bowe 31 times, and Kelce 17. But with the Broncos inability to defend the TE this season, you can bet that Smith will be looking for Kelce early and often, especially in play-action.
Even if it means putting a cornerback on Kelce, like Aqib Talib (if healthy), Chris Harris, Jr, or Bradley Roby, defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, must find a way to take him away. If Kelce can be neutralized, it'll force Smith to look at his outside reads, and he is loathe to do that.
Forcing him to go through his progressions will not only give him pause in his decision making, but also buy the pass rush time to get to him. DeMarcus Ware has a great matchup vs left tackle, Eric Fisher. And Von Miller's matchup is a tasty one too.
Smith will take a sack before he'll make a bad decision, more often than not. Take away the TE and force Smith to think. In conjunction with getting back on track in run defense, that's how the Broncos win this game.