And then there was one.
One game remaining, of course.
Although it's difficult to believe, the Chiefs have finally reached the ultimate game of the regular season, and it's time to meet up with a familiar foe.
The Chiefs travel to Denver in a game that could have had much more significance if the ball had bounced differently last Saturday, but alas the Chiefs still have a shot to finish the season with a 7-9 record.
It's not exactly a consolation for missing out on the playoffs, but beating Denver would likely feel good for two people in particular in Kansas City: interim head coach Romeo Crennel, and fill-in quarterback Kyle Orton.
Two wins in three tries would help RAC build his case as the sensible replacement for the fired Todd Haley, but we likely won't find out his permanent fate till into the New Year. We've seen a different team under Crennel than what we witnessed with Haley at the helm, and it's apparent that Crennel has the endorsements of his players. Ultimately, general manager Scott Pioli will make the decision of whom to hire to direct the team he is the architect of, but you have to figure Crennel is already in the mix.
As for Orton, it was just weeks ago that he was left hung out to dry by the Broncos, a mere afterthought in the hysteria of Tim Tebow. After Kansas City claimed Orton, nearly every football fan circled the Week 17 rematch as must-watch television.
Let's be clear, as much as anyone wants to suggest this game is not about the Tebow-Orton match-up, we'd be naïve to think it wont be closely monitored, and that Orton isn't hoping to prove to Denver that he was and still is a capable starting quarterback. It's impossible to argue with what Tebow has done in Denver in 2011, but many still struggle to believe that he's any more fit as a long-term starter in Denver - or anywhere else - than Orton. One game does not define or settle an argument, but rest assured everyone watching on Sunday will be keeping close tabs on the dueling quarterbacks.
But it'll take much more than another solid outing from their new starting quarterback for the Chiefs to overcome the Broncos on Sunday, and let's focus in on 5 keys to a Kansas City Chiefs victory:
1. Win the turnover differential: Turnovers are of critical importance in every single NFL game, regardless of who you are playing, and the 2011 Denver Broncos are a textbook example of why this is the case. Denver has rattled off seven wins in ten games with Tim Tebow as the starter, and Tebow has turned the ball over as many times in those seven victories (seven) as he did just last weekend versus Buffalo. The Broncos run a unique offense that is tailored to their personnel, but it's one that has little margin for error. When Tebow has thrown caution to the wind with the football, the Broncos have lost. The Chiefs need to force Tebow into such a situation, and make him pay when they do. Making him pay involves capitalizing on short fields from turnovers and protecting the football themselves. Turnovers and missed opportunities in the Raiders' half of the field doomed the Chiefs a week ago - that cannot happen again this Sunday.
2. Convert in the red zone: Confident offensive coordinators aim for a 100% success rate when they enter the red zone; as in, every time they cross the opponent's twenty yard-line they want six points, not just a field goal attempt. In the past two weeks, the Chiefs boast a paltry 22.2% during their nine red zone trips, an unacceptably low percentage. It starts with making good decisions (unlike Kyle Orton's bad interception with the Chiefs knocking on the door last week), and also with playing to the strengths of the situation. The red zone truncates the field, making it more difficult for offenses to spread defenses out, but it also makes it more difficult for defenders to fight through congested areas in man coverage. The Chiefs need to take advantage of this, and incorporate route concepts (like pick/rub concepts) that work in their favor. With Bowe, Breaston and Baldwin, Kansas City has three different weapons to work with, and you'd love to see one emerge as a go-to red area player (Baldwin should become this guy).
3. Complimentary protection players: A year ago, the Broncos racked up just 23 sacks during the entire 2010 season. It was a woeful total for a defense that struggled in nearly every facet, and lacked any semblance of strength across the board. Turn the calendar to 2011, bring a healthy Elvis Dumervil back, draft Von Miller with your first round pick, and you've found a new Denver defense, and one that attacks opposing QB's. The Broncos already have 40 sacks this season, and their rush scheme starts with bookends Elvis Dumervil and the aforementioned Miller. Miller's received due hype this season, and is a lock to finish in the top two of the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, but Dumervil has come on of late and is a dangerous threat opposite the rookie as well. The reality of blocking these two players and the Broncos front is that you cant rely solely on your five offensive linemen for sixty minutes. It takes multiple complimentary blockers (ie backs, tight ends, and even extra linemen) to halt this rush, and the Chiefs must use these extra layers of protection effectively. Many remember the historically impressive catch made by rookie Jonathan Baldwin the last time these two teams played (if you don't, here it is), and it came on a classic example of max-pro play action. Both Chiefs running backs and their lone tight end were held in for protection, and just two receivers were sent out in the pattern. Except more of that this weekend as the Chiefs attempt to keep Kyle Orton on his feet.
4. Build the wall: the last time we talked Chiefs-Broncos, we focused on the importance of the Chiefs being solid against the run. Well, it didn't quite work out, as the Broncos marched for 244 yards on an astounding fifty-five carries, and held the football for nearly seven minutes more than the Chiefs. On Sunday, this needs to change, and it starts with the down linemen and outside linebackers. The Broncos are an effective running team, but they do most of their work through power and decisive running, as opposed to gaining big chunks of yards with speedsters. Yes, they'll throw in some option and make defenders play discipline and leverage techniques, but the Chiefs need to be ready to hold their ground and own the point of attack. The young Chiefs defensive linemen are inching towards veteran status, and need to become master technicians as they continue to grow. Few teams have the football run against them more than the Chiefs (461 times already this season), so Kansas City should know what's coming and be ready to build a wall to take care of business.
5. Finish strong, and with pride: Five years from now, or maybe even five months from now, some may not remember if the Chiefs finish 7-9 or 6-10, but to think Sunday's game is not important is foolish. I remember the feeling after defeating this same Broncos team in Week 17 of 2009, and how it catapulted us into the 2010 year. A win to finish the season kick starts the preparation for the next year, and gives players something to build off of. Players are more excited to start off-season programs, and are more confident in what the team can become. The Chiefs have a chance to finish the season with two wins in three games (potentially over two division champions), and set themselves up for a bounce back year in 2012. The core of young talent is in place, and with what looks like an extremely strong 2012 draft the Chiefs should acquire even more young pieces to add to the mix. Throw in the returns of the Chiefs' injured stars, and 2012 is already looking up. A win Sunday would signal the fight and determination this team already has, and give the players that extra belief in themselves that they can turn their fortunes around in a hurry. Expect a gritty effort on Sunday that leads into a successful 2012 for the Kansas City Chiefs.