You catch yourself doing it more and more. You want to push it out of your mind and focus on the present; after all, it’s still so far away…
But every day brings us closer and closer to November 17th: The first meeting between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Denver Broncos. If you claim to be a Chiefs fan and this matchup isn’t taking up at least 60% of your football-related brain activity, you are lying.
Of course, we don’t want to overlook the two opponents remaining before the Mile High clash; both Cleveland and Buffalo have the potential to beat the Chiefs. However, the Browns have played horribly with Brandon Weeden under center, and have a potential quarterback controversy brewing. The Bills have been decimated with injuries and have also delved deep into their depth chart to find their starting QB. Buffalo should make Chiefs fans at least a little nervous, given how they’ve had Kansas City’s number for several seasons now and just beat a very good Dolphins team this past Sunday. But even so, it would be surprising to see the Chiefs go into the bye week with a record any worse than 9-0.
And so we return to the game in Denver. Two football titans (not of the Tennessee variety) meeting with, almost certainly, first place in the division at stake. The best offense in the league goes head to head with the best defense in the league.
But the game won’t be decided while Peyton Manning, Tamba Hali, or Justin Houston are on the field. Nor will Jamaal Charles or Von Miller play the most important roles in determining the outcome. The showdown between the best offense and best defense in the league may actually turn out to be a showdown between the best punter and best punt returner in the league. That’s right- while much of the emphasis in the weeks leading up to this game will focus on Manning and how well his offense stacks up against the Chiefs’ defense, the matchup I find most intriguing pits the elder Colquitt against the Broncos’ Trindon Holliday.
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Why is a special teams matchup so important in a game that undoubtedly seems to revolve around offense vs. defense? Field position, of course. The Chiefs’ mastery of field position battles this year is one of the biggest reasons this team is 7-0. According to the stat-collectors at Football Outsiders, through Week 6, the Chiefs ranked first in both average starting field position and average opponent starting field position. That sort of dominance wins football games. NFL-caliber offenses easily convert short fields into touchdowns. Even given the Chiefs’ phenomenal defense, if you hand the ball to Peyton Manning on your own side of the field, he’s going to hang seven points on you relatively quickly.
It is Trindon Holliday’s job to produce that short field for the Broncos. While their offense can produce points from anywhere on the field, they are still mortal enough to be subjected to the same basic football law as every other team: The less yards you have to cover, the easier it is for you to score. Only Devin Hester and Keshawn Martin have more combined kickoff and punt return yards than Holliday this year, but neither of them have played a significant role in punt returns this year. Throw in the fact that Holliday is the only player with two returns for scores this season, and it becomes clear: Holliday is not just a weapon, he could very well be the best return man in the NFL. He is a key part of the Broncos’ offensive machine despite rarely taking the field alongside of it.
The big concern when facing Denver is stopping Peyton Manning. For the most part, teams have been going about it all wrong. The first step to stopping Peyton Manning is stopping Trindon Holliday. Yes, Manning can still drive down the field and score. But if you make him work for more yards, he’s more likely to make a mistake.
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Let’s do some math. Don’t worry- it’s just football math. Matt Prater has a range of about 55 yards. This means if the Broncos drive within their opponents’ 38, they have a fairly good chance of coming away with points. The Broncos average a league-best 42 yards per drive. Subtract those 42 yards from the opponents’ 38 and where does that leave you? The 20-yard line. In theory, if the Broncos have to start within their own 20-yard line, more often than not, they will fail to score. Their average drive will not extend far enough down the field for Prater to try a field goal. The problem for most teams is pinning Holliday within that 20-yard line.
Enter Dustin Colquitt.
Once again, Dustin Colquitt is leading the league in punts inside the 20, and he has a fair bit of breathing room. (Full disclosure: part of this is because he has attempted more punts than anyone else in the league this season.) However, less than 10% of his punts end up as touchbacks. If there is a punter in the NFL who can consistently pin Denver inside their own 20, it’s Dustin Colquitt.
The best way to stop Holliday from breaking a long return is to never give him an opportunity to do that. Colquitt will be aiming for coffin corner punts out of bounds, and punts with long hangtimes that force Holliday to call for a fair catch.
But Colquitt can only do so much. He’ll need a little help to win this crucial battle. He’ll need some help from the offense to provide him with a better opportunity to kick high, short punts, which would in turn allow his gunners a better opportunity to stop Holliday. And, of course, he’ll need help from his teammates in the punting unit, to give him adequate blocking and solid upfield tackling if the need arises. Football is, after all, a team sport.
We all know that Peyton Manning can steal games all by himself. But we also know that he’s beatable. To win in Week 11- and Week 13- the Chiefs will need to force Manning to drive down long fields and face the tough Chiefs defense with his back against his own end zone. So don’t forget about the value of special teams and our Pro Bowl punter- the elder Colquitt could very easily make the difference in the game.
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But a first, a note of caution: we still have several weeks before we head to Denver. There are two good football teams between us and our date with destiny- so while it’s okay to look ahead a couple weeks in anticipation of a game with a magnitude the likes of which Kansas City hasn’t seen in many years, let’s keep on supporting our Chiefs with everything we’ve got to give in the next two weeks. We still have plenty of this ride to go before we arrive at Mile High.