Game #1 Preview: Table Setter for AFC West Crown?

Don't kid yourself this is a huge game for the Chiefs and Broncos. For the Chiefs this will be the last time they'll face an AFC West opponent until November 28th when they'll play four of their last five games against division foes. The Broncos have a brutal schedule down the stretch and they must get a leg up on the Chiefs because a loss could be devastating to their chances to lay claim to the best in the West.

The Chiefs and Broncos rivalry has become one of the best in the NFL. After dominating Denver for most of the 90's, the Mile High Boys have struck back since Dick Vermeil took over as the Chiefs head coach. Why? Simply the Broncos have been a better team.

Denver would have swept the series last season had it not been for Dante Hall's cardiac return. Still the Chiefs split the series last season as they were leveled by Broncos running back Clinton Portis. But that won't happen this year as the primary ‘Chief Killer' was traded to the Washington Redskins.

So the focus of the Broncos offense falls on second year running back Quentin Griffin who has tremendous speed but lacks size and some say the durability to be an every down back. Now don't get me wrong the former Oklahoma Sooner has the ability to dominate a football game if given the open spaces that Portis enjoyed the last two years in Denver.

If Griffin struggles then journeyman Garrison Hearst and Oklahoma State rookie Tatum Bell will get some reps. But none of that matters unless much-maligned and inconsistent quarterback Jake Plummer can't make some plays on offense.

Plummer was abysmal in the pre-season and if the Chiefs can get into his grill and drill him to the turf a couple of times; Kansas City could force Plummer into making mistakes. Plummer is at his best when he's mobile; doing bootlegs, throwing on the run instead of sitting in the pocket waiting for receivers to get open. He is not a pocket-passer and the Chiefs must keep him within the tackles.

Now Plummer has shown the ability to be lights out in a game and generally steps up or decreases his game based on the talent on the other side of the ball. That's been the knock throughout Plummer's career. That knock could strangle him this year if he struggles especially without Portis in the backfield to bail him out when he struggles.

New Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham is one who's had plenty of success against the Broncos especially in Denver. This week in practice Cunningham returned to his old form and certainly had his game face on with his defensive warriors.

Now the question during the off-season remains to be answered. Can the Chiefs defense with virtually the same personnel; be better than they were in 2002 and 2003 under the Cunningham. Only time will tell but this will be the toughest road test of the season for the Chiefs and a strong defensive showing against a struggling and unproven Broncos offense could carry the defense to new heights this season.

That's why the Chiefs and Cunningham must attack on virtually every down. For the first time in recent history Kansas City has incredible depth along the defensive line and that should allow them to constantly rotate fresh legs up front and try to wear down the Broncos impressive offensive line.

In the pre-season, defensive end Eric Hicks has shown an ability to put pressure on the quarterback. If the Chiefs can get a pass rush from the other defensive end spot either out of Vonnie Holliday or rookie Jared Allen; they could be in business on Sunday night.

But the key will be the Chiefs ability to push up the middle. Ryan Sims showed a mean streak in the Browns exhibition game. Big Lional Dalton and rookie Junior Siavii both take up a lot of space in the center of the line and veteran John Browning who played both inside and outside in the pre-season give the Chiefs a solid core group that has the ability to make plays. If the Chiefs can force the Broncos into passing situations then Gary Stills could emerge as a defensive weapon.

The sore spot for the Chiefs is at linebacker is with third string linebacker Monty Beisel. The former Kansas State Wildcat is subbing for Kawika Mitchell who is subbing for Mike Maslowski. Now Beisel is a football player and the progress he's made the last two weeks has been noticeable. If he can hold his own and be an enforcer, then Shawn Barber and Scott Fujita could be freed to blitz more and take some chances.

In the secondary, Dexter McCleon is expected to start along side Eric Warfield who could be primed for a Pro Bowl season. They are solid but the back-ups are unproven. William Bartee appears to be back to his rookie form but rookie Benny Sapp and second year corner Julian Battle needs to step up and make a play or two.

The Broncos wide receivers are talented but they're not playing their best football heading into the home opener. Veteran Rod Smith is not the same receiver he was in years past and Ashlie Lelie has yet to show the ability he can catch the average or difficult pass. The player to watch is Marshall Rookie receiver Darius Watts who has done for the Broncos what fellow rookie Richard Smith has done for the Chiefs.

Watts has the ability to be special and Kansas City must know when he's on the field. Both starting safeties Jerome Woods and Greg Wesley should benefit if the Chiefs corners are successful at playing bump and run. Look for both Woods and Wesley to blitz Plummer on occasion.

On offense the Chiefs just have to play their game. Though they struggled the last three years in Denver, the offense has shown an ability to score at Invesco Field. They have to utilize all their weapons starting with running back Priest Holmes. The Broncos have a vulnerability against the run. Though they have a solid defensive line especially at the end with Trevor Pryce and Raylee Johnson they don't have a strong push up the middle.

At linebacker the Broncos are dealing with the free agent defection of Ian Gold and the retirement of John Mobley. But they still have all-world linebacker Al Wilson playing the center of their defense. He can make plays from a number of directions and angles on the field. He might only have one peer at his position and that's the Ravens Ray Lewis. So the Chiefs need to stay away from Wilson and don't let him get into a flow defensively.

The Chiefs can pass the ball against the Broncos despite the addition of Champ Bailey. The $65 million man can only play one receiver at a time and its likely he'll cheat and play some man to man against tight end Tony Gonzalez. Dante Hall, who loves playing in Denver, will line up with Eddie Kennison who used to play for Denver. Both can catch the ball and make plays but the key will be Gonzalez. If the Broncos have a weakness its at safety and they have no one who can cover the Chiefs best receiver. Thirteen year veteran John Lynch settles in at Free Safety and it will be his responsibility along with strong side safety Kenoy Kennedy to track Gonzalez over the middle.

But in order for the Chiefs to be successful running or passing the ball, the offensive line must step up. The ‘Five Horseman' are anchored by a new member with the addition of John Welbourn. But the rest of the line led by Pro-Bowl regulars Willie Roaf and Will Shields should be able to neutralize the Broncos pass rush.

Trent Green has been razor sharp in the pre-season despite the fact he's yet to get on the field with last years starting wide receivers. Rookie Richard Smith was the Chiefs best receiver in August and it remains to be seen if he can carry that success in games when they mean something in September. My guess is he can (and if and I mean a big if) Johnnie Morton can step up his game and play like he did before he signed with the Chiefs two years ago, Kansas City could easily win this game.

Last year the Chiefs offense stopped themselves far too often because they never put their foot on the throats of their opponents; especially when they had them on the ropes. It's doubtful they'll play that way this year and the Denver game would be the perfect forum to display a new attitude. It's one thing to lead the league in scoring but its something entirely different when you show no mercy for your opponent.

In the end this is a deviously healthy serving of the NFL's premier game of the week. The ESPN crowd will be in for a treat when these two teams face off on Sunday Night. Both have plenty to prove and both will leave it all on the field for the 2004 opener.

It should be a great match-up that should leave the Chiefs with their third straight season opening victory.

Predicted Score:
Kansas City 24 – Broncos 10


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