Either way, the first clash of the season between these two AFC West foes comes nearly two weeks into December. The Kansas City Chiefs are playing their second of three consecutive road games, against the Denver Broncos in Empower Field at Mile High.
The Chiefs entered the weekend as 8.5-point favorites, according DraftKings SportsBook.
The Chiefs can actually win the AFC West on Sunday if they take care of Denver and the Los Angeles Chargers lose at Miami Dolphins on Sunday night football. It would be the first division to be decided in the NFL this season, although a few more could happen this week.
It’s also a chance for the Chiefs to extend their streak of dominance over the Broncos: Kansas City has won 13 straight games since the 2015 season.
I have five things to watch in Game 125 of the all-time series:
1. A bounce game for the pass rush
The bad news: The Chiefs’ pass rush was a major problem last week. The good news: it’s almost impossible to look worse or less effective.
The combination of great pocket maneuvering and rhythmic passing game returned only a hit or sack from the quarterback, but those talents are not matched by Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson currently; Denver’s offense has allowed the fourth most sacks in the league.
It will take the plays around defensive tackle Chris Jones to step up; the Bengals game revealed how bad it could look when Jones was double-teamed on nearly every passing play. Opponents will continue to force defensive ends Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap and rookie George Karlaftis to win against a pass blocker.
If they still can’t win those one-on-one battles this week, they need to raise their hands: Pass-hitting is one of the unit’s strengths — and Wilson’s throws from the pocket are still likely to be hit.
2. Riding the dash of rushing attack
Since Tennessee Titans stuffed the Chiefs’ running game in Week 9, the Chiefs have rushed for 117 or more yards as a team in each of the last four weeks. In this stretch, starting running back Isiah Pacheco on average 4.8 meters per stroke, and Jerick McKinnon average of 5.1 meters.
Pacheco has the fifth most rushing yards in the NFL during this streak – gelling with the offensive line to maximize running lanes more than he did earlier in the season. Runs from the bread-and-butter zone looked as good as they did all of last season, and that extends to the offensive line – which looked nowhere near as good when asked to pass protection.
This is the key point: a strong rushing performance can hide the gaps in pass protection and can also restore the group’s lost confidence. denver allows 4.5 yards per rush attempt, the 13th-highest rate in the NFL; their front is the most exploitable part of their strong defense.
3. Strengthen the defensive midfielder
If the pass rush was the biggest issue last Sunday, the tackle, block removal and coverage efforts of the team’s linebackers and safeties were up close.
Each runner at these positions had several missed tackles; Cornerback L’Jarius Sneed added three missed tackles. The defensive midfielder was nicked in the running game and also set apart in the passing game.
They can try to excuse the problems by pointing out how great the Bengals’ skill set is, but they can’t use that excuse this week. The Broncos offense is shorthanded, misses number one receiver Courtland Sutton. Their main running back is 32 and was part of a practice squad to start the year. Their quarterback hasn’t effectively escaped the pressure this season.
It will be a redemption game for linebackers and safeties – but also defensive tackles. Consistent lack of group toughness may lead Chiefs elevate Brandon Williams, the running veteran who was recently signed to the practice squad.
4. Watch out for Travis Kelce
In the first game between these two teams last season, the Broncos limited tight end Travis Kelce to three catches for 27 yards on eight targets. It was one of the least effective matches of his entire career.
Denver could miss some key elements of their defense on Sunday, but that won’t change their strategy of being physical in cover with Kelce
They limited him to 3 catches for 27 yards in Week 13, roughing him up a bit in the process. pic.twitter.com/QdxiW83gyI
—Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 6, 2022
Although Denver’s coaching staff is new, many of the players covered are the same — and know how important it is to make life difficult for Kelce: In this game, the Chiefs managed just one touchdown and 16 offensive points.
They’ll get physical on the line of scrimmage with him, whether it’s a linebacker or a safety. He won’t just have a defender’s attention on any given passing play – and when the pass comes his way, he’ll have to duck and cover. It was clear that Denver wanted to inflict pain at every opportunity they had last season.
5. Situational Defense
When (or if) the Broncos cross the Chiefs’ 20-yard line, the game will become a battle of situational bad football.
A big part of the Broncos’ lackluster score is their inability to complete red-zone practices: They hold the lowest rate of red zone possessions ending in touchdowns this season while also reaching the red zone five times less than any other NFL team. On the other hand, leaders allow a touchdown in the red zone at the third-highest rate in the NFL.
This defense and the third down will be very important – because the Broncos have also one of the worst third down conversion rates in the league. The chiefs are only ranked 20th as third defense nowbut we know that’s where defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s madness can be most effective.
What Denver does early and before the red zone is one thing, but Kansas City needs to hold them and keep them in place.