Most pundits have spent their time juxtaposing the league's top offense and defense rather than the two opponents as a whole. It's almost as if this storied divisional rivalry is being billed as 60 minutes of Peyton Manning versus the Chiefs defense ... but there's a lot more to this story.
As a remedial top-to-bottom evaluation, let's compare the results against common opponents, of which the Chiefs and Broncos have five (so far). In games against Dallas, Philadelphia, the Giants, Jaguars and Raiders, the Broncos total margin of victory is just seven points greater than the Chiefs (85 to 78). The teams appear to be polar opposites, primarily in that Denver scores and allows a lot of points while Kansas City has consistently been at much lower totals. One thing is certain: despite contrasting styles, each franchise is very, very good at what they're doing.
With the unfortunate absence of head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has taken over interim duties in Denver. It's hard to say what kind of effect this will have on the Broncos but if last week's game against San Diego was any indication, this team won't skip a beat. Adam Gase is the youngest offensive coordinator in the NFL at just 34 years of age ... three years junior to quarterback Peyton Manning. Make no mistake -- this is Peyton's offense. Presented without comment: the Broncos also employ former Chiefs "offensive assistant" Jim Bob Cooter.
The most formidable unit in the NFL is led by one of the all-time great quarterbacks in Peyton Manning. What can you say, really? He's having one of the best seasons of his already stunning career, leading the league in yards, touchdowns, yards per completion, first downs and on and on and on. It's worth noting that he's dealing with an ankle injury and has turned the ball over a little more than usual, but clearly he's still at the top his game and that's a scary proposition -- even for the league's best defense.
At running back, the Broncos employ a three-man rotation with Knowshon Moreno getting the bulk of the carries. He's blossomed at pass blocking and receiving in 2013, giving him a balanced skill set overall. He'll be spelled occasionally by Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, both young runners that have been only mildly effective. Hillman has some electricity to his game, but also has issues with ball security.
With the addition of Wes Welker in the offseason and the emergence of young tight end Julius Thomas, the Broncos now have the best collection of pass catchers in the NFL. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas start on the outside but Denver runs three-wide sets almost exclusively.
If the Broncos have an Achilles heel, look no further than the offensive line. Left tackle Ryan Clady is on IR, with Chris Clark (?) stepping in for him. Orlando Franklin starts at right tackle but has also missed some time due to injury this season. Denver's pair of tackles leaves plenty to be desired but the interior of their line has been outstanding thus far. Right guard Louis Vasquez and center Manny Ramirez made PFF's Mid-Season All-Pro Team and left guard Zane Beadles is no slouch himself.
Return specialist Trindon Holliday is enigmatic -- it seems like he either has no effect on the outcome of the game or becomes the catalyst, be it positive or negative. Holliday can score any time he touches the ball ... but he's literally fumbled away countless opportunities this season.
Chiefs ST coach Dave Toub on Broncos KR / PR Trindon Holliday: "He’s the best we’ve faced this year, by far. He’s got the total package."— Arrowhead Pride (@ArrowheadPride) November 15, 2013
How to stop them
First things first: you must hit Peyton Manning. Hit him early, hit him late, hit him hard and hit him often. We're gonna need to see that Peyton struggle face we've grown so fond of. The Chiefs have a tremendous pass rush but it has been quelled at times by the quick passing game.
Tracking numbers against the blitz is difficult, but here's a general idea of how Peyton Manning has done this season when facing five or more rushers -- really freaking well.
I'll be surprised if Bob Sutton dials-up the pressure all that often Sunday night ... the key will be to generate a healthy rush when sending four and dropping seven.
Kansas City has the personnel and the scheme to matchup with Denver man-to-man, something perhaps no other team in the league can say. Another rare quality: the Chiefs defense is yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season. Brandon Flowers moving to the slot (thanks to the emergence of Marcus Cooper) is invaluable against a receiver like Wes Welker. Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper must get physical with Thomas and Decker at the line and disrupt their timing in the passing game. Julius Thomas will be a tough cover for Eric Berry, so he may draw a little help from Derrick Johnson and / or Justin Houston from time to time.
Given how often Denver plays three-wide, it will be very interesting to see how Sutton rotates his defensive linemen. Allen Bailey has taken the lion's share of nickel snaps next to Dontari Poe, but it stands to reason that Mike DeVito and Tyson Jackson will get plenty of opportunities in this game.
Thus far in 2013, the Broncos have been rotating a lot of bodies up front in their 4-3 defense. They have three or more sacks from five different defensive linemen, with former Charger Shaun Phillips leading the way at 7.5. The starters are technically Derek Wolfe and Phillips at defensive end with Robert Ayers and Malik Jackson getting a ton of reps behind them. At defensive tackle, Kevin Vickerson and Terrence Knighton are big, strong and violent at the point of attack.
Von Miller got his first start at outside linebacker a few weeks ago after a lengthy suspension for repeatedly violating the league's substance abuse policy on recreational drugs. He's started a bit slow but has flashed the skills that established him as one of the best defensive players in the league last year. Danny Trevathan plays the other outside linebacker spot and has set the tone this year with 20 more tackles than any of his teammates, while his three INTs are tied for the team lead ... but chances are, you remember him for this blunder more than anything. Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard has battled injuries this season but looks to finally be getting healthy. When they're all performing at the top of their game, this group of linebackers can be very disruptive. Each possesses unique speed and quickness to chase down ball carries and shadow receivers across the middle.
For years, Champ Bailey has been the unquestioned leader of Denver's defense and one of the best at his position league-wide. Age and health concerns have finally caught up to him, however, limiting Bailey to just two games this season. Champ won't play on Sunday, leaving the Broncos with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Chris Harris Jr. and Quentin Jammer as the primary cornerbacks. Duke Ihenacho is a sure-tackling strong safety that loves to get involved in the run game. Rahim Moore has excellent range at free safety but has taken poor angles far too often, leading to big plays for opposing offenses.
How to attack them
A rather woeful group thus far, Denver's defense is 23rd in yards and 25th in scoring. Their run defense has been a strength (4th in yards, 2nd in YPC), but those numbers are tough to diagnose thanks to their high-powered offense routinely affording them big leads early in games.
Their secondary doesn't really instill a lot of fear, especially without Champ Bailey. The one matchup that looks to be in Denver's favor is Chris Harris on Dexter McCluster. Andy Reid has been moving Dwayne Bowe all over the field lately, including significant time in the slot (where Harris plays) so the disadvantage McCluster faces may become null on game day. Bowe caught seven passes against the Bills, more than 20 percent of his season total. Look for his targets to be in the double-digits again this week.
Limiting Denver's opportunities on offense is an obvious part of the game plan, but San Diego's 39 minutes of possession last week didn't really slow down Peyton Manning and company. Regardless, Jamaal Charles simply has to get going against this subpar defensive unit. As a byproduct of their high-powered offense, the Broncos are yet to allow a running back to top 100 yards this year -- that streak must end on Sunday if the Chiefs want to win. Through nine games, Charles has maxed-out at 27 touches (three times) but averages right at 24 a game... you should expect him to hit 30 touches at least, with 35 being my target number.
As mentioned earlier this week , the offensive line has steadily improved thanks to clean bills of health and increased continuity. Alex needs time to throw, receivers need time to get open and Jamaal needs running room to break-off a couple long ones - this is all on the big guys up front. It's time for them to come together and play their best game of the season.
Key advantages for Denver
1. Peyton Manning at Mile High - Forgive the keyhole statistic, but this man has a sparkling home record of 12-2 since joining the Broncos. There have always be questions about how he handles the winter elements and it looks like there's a good chance temperatures are below freezing at kickoff, but he's lost just once at Mile High in what could be considered "cold weather".
2. Offensive potency - 41 points per game is just ... ridiculous. While it's true that six of their nine opponents rank 20th or lower in scoring defense (including each of the two defensive teams in the NFL), the Broncos are the very definition of an offensive juggernaut. If this game turns into a shootout, the Chiefs have no chance of winning -- they simply aren't built that way.
3. Weapons, weapons, weapons - Three of Peyton Manning's receivers (Thomas, Thomas, Welker) are tied for second in the NFL with nine TD grabs apiece. He also has Eric Decker (47 receptions, three TDs) and Knowshon Moreno (120 carries, 37 receptions) at his disposal. Man for man, this may be the best collection of skill talent that Peyton has ever played with ... and that's a terrifying proposition.
Key advantages for Kansas City
1. Bye week brilliance - You've probably seen it a dozen times already, but it's impossible to over-publicize Andy Reid's 13-1 record coming off the bye. The Chiefs had a few players that really needed some R&R, so the timing was absolutely perfect. Brandon Flowers, Jeff Allen, Eric Fisher and Anthony Fasano are finally at 100 percent and Jamaal Charles is damn close. Meanwhile, Peyton Manning aggravated that high ankle sprain against San Diego last week.
2. Element of surprise - Not only are the Broncos favored by 8.5 points, reports from Vegas suggest that tickets have been coming in 2-1 in their favor. After listening to ESPN Denver this week, it was clear that their hosts and fans are essentially glossing-over this game as if the Chiefs don't stand a chance. They went as far as to say the Broncos defense has played better than Kansas City over the past three games ... which is interesting, considering the Broncos LOST a game in which they surrendered 39 points to Indianapolis during that stretch. In case you were wondering, the Chiefs only allowed 36 points over the same span of games.
3. Nothing to lose - Thanks to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos are already one game back of the Chiefs for the division lead. Kansas City not only has Indy remaining on their schedule (tiebreaker), they still get to play Denver at Arrowhead. Losing this game is not the end of the world because the Chiefs still control their own destiny and frankly, no one outside of Kansas City expects them to win. Unless you count the beautiful people of New Hampshire...
Dontari Poe vs. Manny Ramirez and Louis Vasquez - Pressuring Peyton's pocket (and other alliterations) is the easiest way to rattle him. Denver's interior duo has been dominant, so Poe's ability to draw both of them is probably the most important battle for Kansas City's top-ranked defense. If he demands a double team from their two best linemen, it creates one-on-ones for the other three rushers in the Chiefs nickel package. Stay hungry, big man.
Von Miller / Derek Wolfe / Malik Jackson vs. Eric Fisher - He looks to be turning the corner of late, but the Chiefs rookie right tackle has had some very ugly performances this season. This is the biggest game he's ever been a part of and the Mile High crowd will be ruthless for this nationally televised game. Jack Del Rio will be sending pressure at Fisher from start to finish ... will he be able to step-up to the task?
Denver's 3rd down O vs. Kansas City's 3rd down D - Each unit is the best in the NFL in these situations. I suppose there's a chance that they meet in the middle somewhere, but I have a sneaking suspicion that whichever team is closest to their season average in this category will emerge victorious.
Brandon Flowers vs. Wes Welker - 47 of Welker's 53 catches have gone for either a first down or a touchdown. Read that again. 47 OF 53. Something to remember: his longest play of the season is only 33 yards, further proving his role as a prototypical slot receiver. Flowers has always struggled with true speed flankers but his reactions, technique and short-area quickness are second to none. This one will be fun to watch.
The bottom line
Man, I could write 5,000 words on this game without batting an eyelash. There are so many compelling storylines that it feels impossible to cover every one of them. I mean come on ... I haven't even mentioned Tamba Hali yet and his performance could decide the outcome of this game.
Tension is beginning to mount with each passing hour before kickoff. I'm at that 98-percent excited, two-percent scared level right now. You know what I'm actually worried about? You guys. Am I the only one feeling confident about this game?! Shut up with your tempered expectations and all that nonsense. The Chiefs are the better team and they're going to put that on display Sunday night. Bob Sutton's defense is playing at as high a level as the NFL has ever seen -- and no, that's not an exaggeration.
Say it with me: 11 touchdowns in nine games. Don't act like you're not impressed.
Elite defenses are damn near extinct, making them damn near impossible to prepare for. Denver is not a big play offense but they have scored a number of long touchdowns via short throws -- that means great blocking execution, tremendous ability after the catch and oh yeah... atrocious tackling by their opponents. Look, Peyton wants to dink and dunk down the field. Think Alex Smith is a "game manager"? Manning is the ULTIMATE game manager. He will be none too pleased to discover that the average touchdown scored against the Chiefs this season is 34 yards. Translation: once you get inside the 30 yard line, you're getting three or you're getting NOTHING. Bring it, Broncos.
Speaking of bring it...
...bring your ass out to Lawrence for the official Amateur Hour watch party, brought to you by Arrowhead Pride and the lovely people at The Phoggy Dog. Starting at 6 p.m. Arrowhead Time, HisDirknesS and I will be hosting an hour of pregame (also LIVE streaming on AP) with contests and some pretty amazing prizes like a $50 bar tab and an authentic Dexter McCluster jersey up for grabs. We'll also have a minimum of 90 minutes of LIVE post-game for you starting within mere moments of the game's conclusion.
Like beer? $7 ANY pitcher. Prefer booze? $2 wells. Let's do some shots -- $3 bombs. Plus they have $5 burger baskets for your tummy, 14 TVs for your viewing pleasure and full-HD Bose surround sound. Its gonna be the party of the year, so come out to 2228 Iowa in Lawrence this Sunday!
As for my score prediction... you'll just have to wait til' Sunday. How's that for a tease?!