Denver Broncos (9-2) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Bonnie Bernstein
SERIES: 91st meeting. The Kansas City Chiefs lead the series against the Denver Broncos 50-40. The Broncos won the only playoff game between the teams, in 1997. Denver went on to win its first Super Bowl title that year. Denver also won the first meeting between the two teams this year, in September at Denver.
2005 RANKINGS: Broncos: offense 7th (2nd rush, 21st pass); defense 17th (1st rush, 28th pass). Chiefs: offense 5th (4th rush, 13th pass); defense 22nd (5th rush, 29th pass)
PREDICTION: Broncos 27-21
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Broncos have had precious little success in Arrowhead Stadium in December -- winning just once in 17 meetings. Denver's run-oriented offense should fare well in cold conditions, but Kansas City has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in a league-high 18 consecutive games. Still, the Broncos will use any mix of three different backs in an attempt to create short third-down situations. The Chiefs can have success if they can prevent the Broncos from establishing the play-action pass and can pressure QB Jake Plummer on third-and-long. Kansas City's offense is also geared heavily toward the run, although the Chiefs averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in a 30-10 loss at Denver in Week 3. To change their fortune this time around, the Chiefs need to devise a way to bust RB Larry Johnson free from Denver's speedy trio of linebackers.
FAST FACTS: Broncos: Are 4-0 when leading after the first quarter. ... Plummer leads the NFL with a 1.3 interception percentage (four INTs in 314 pass attempts). Chiefs: Have won 16 consecutive home games in December. ... WR Eddie Kennison has three consecutive 100-yard receiving games against Denver. ... Johnson has four consecutive 100-yard rushing games.
--RB Tatum Bell continues to practice, and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he will play on Sunday at Kansas City. Bell missed last week's game against Dallas with a bruised chest. Bell could lose some carries to Ron Dayne, who filled in well for Bell against the Cowboys.
--LB Keith Burns (knee) didn't practice Thursday. He is listed as questionable but has to make a quick recovery to be able to play by Sunday.
--OT Cornell Green (shoulder) remained doubtful on Denver's injury report and hasn't practiced all week. He is unlikely to play on Sunday.
--CB Champ Bailey is still listed on the Broncos injury report as probable, but his hamstring is doing well. Bailey said he's not completely healthy, but he looks as if he's once again playing at his regular level after struggling through most of the first half of the season.
--S John Lynch will be crucial to Denver's run defense against Kansas City this week. Lynch will provide support against the run. Fellow S Nick Ferguson will have his hands full covering TE Tony Gonzalez.
--DT Ryan Sims likely will play for the first time since injuring his foot in the season opener when the Chiefs host Denver on Sunday. Sims, who was coming off the best preseason of his checkered four-year career, probably won't regain his starting role immediately, but might take 20 or more snaps in a DT rotation.
--DE Carlos Hall was unofficially downgraded to doubtful Thursday when coach Dick Vermeil said he doubted that his situational passer rusher could play against Denver. Hall injured a hamstring last week against New England.
--C Casey Wiegmann returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's workout with an ankle injury. Wiegmann took less than a full load of repetitions, but he's expected to play against Denver.
--SS Sammy Knight, though listed as questionable with an ankle injury, took a nearly full load of reps in Thursday's practice and should be available for the Denver game.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
The first time the Broncos played Kansas City this season, they had to worry about Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson.
Holmes is out of the picture for Sunday's game because of a season-ending injury, but that isn't too comforting to the Broncos. They know well what Johnson can do when he is getting all of the carries. Johnson rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns against the Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium last year.
This season, however, Denver ranks first in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 79.1 yards per game.
"I'm feeling good about it," Broncos safety John Lynch said. "The addition of the guys up front is helping us control the line of scrimmage."
Denver has played with the lead in almost every game this season, and many opponents have abandoned the running game, helping Denver's stats against the run. But Denver already shut down the Chiefs once this season. The Chiefs had 74 yards on 22 carries. Johnson had only 13 yards on eight carries, and he lost a first-quarter fumble that led to a Broncos touchdown.
Denver has upgraded its talent on the defense this year, and the unit has made few mistakes, limiting the opponents' big plays.
"Assignment, alignment, technique," defensive tackle Gerard Warren said. "I call it AA&T instead of AT&T. We've got great technicians.
That's a contributing factor to this defense."
Larry Johnson received the kind of individual recognition he's been craving on Thursday when he was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month for November.
The Chiefs went 3-1 in the month when Johnson, in his first four games as the full-time replacement for injured starter Priest Holmes, ran for 100-plus yards four times and for 200-plus yards once.
Johnson averaged 4.9 yards a carry during the month, when he ran 116 times for 569 yards - a league-high for the month - and five TDs. He also had 14 catches for 153 yards.
More important to the Chiefs than Johnson's league honor, though, is his development into a more complete running back than he was at the beginning of the season, when he played in a rotation with Holmes.
"He's doing much better, really playing well," said quarterback Trent Green. "He continues to grow in his pass protections and his checkdowns and where to be in passing situations. He's obviously very gifted as a runner, but the area where he's probably grown the most is in the passing game. All those are good things from my standpoint."
The continuation of a strong running game, most evident when Johnson ran for a club-record 211 yards at Houston, also forces defenses to play the Chiefs with more safeties staying closer to the line of scrimmage, thus opening up the downfield passing game.
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