Tonight, I have one thing on my mind:
A picture's worth a thousand words, so take it away, Yuri...
It hasn't really been all that close
Okay, let's slow down a second. The Reid-era Chiefs have played the Manning-era Broncos four times, and ended up on the wrong side of every encounter. And it hasn't really been close.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective has a nifty little stat called a "Game Script". It measures the average points differential for every second in the game, and tells you who spent most the game on top, and by how much.
Each week Kansas City has played Denver, the Broncos have led by an average of roughly a touchdown the entire game. The only real nail-biter was Week 13 two years ago. It is fitting that the Chiefs were one touchdown away in that game. It sums up the perception I have of this entire rivalry right now. The Chiefs are not a field goal away, or a fumble away, or a sack away -- they are a touchdown away.
And a touchdown is hard to come by. It's hard to stop Manning from scoring one. It's hard to score one on the Denver defense. But a touchdown is how far away the Chiefs are from beating Denver.
In the first contest, Denver led the game by an average by 8.1 points. In the second, at Arrowhead, Denver led by an average of 0.2 points.
In the third contest, Denver led by an average of 6.8. In the fourth, Denver led by 11.
Average them out and you get Denver leading the Chiefs consistently, second after second, game after game, season after season, by 6.5 points.
How can Kansas City earn that extra touchdown and, with it, a victory?
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Is Manning finished?
A lot of the media talk surrounding this game will involve Manning's performance. If it's great, there will be a collective sigh of relief. If it's bad -- like last year Tom Brady at Arrowhead bad -- there will be collective epitaphs. Three strikes, you're out, and this would be Manning's third straight duck of an outing if he comes to Kansas City tonight and his offense looks like it did last week and to end last season.
I am not concerned with that, myself. Frankly, I don't like rooting for any player's season to be his last. Something doesn't feel right about that. But, I also think the question is irrelevant. Because it is not Kansas City's job to make sure this is Manning's last season -- that's something Manning and the Broncos will decide themselves. It's Kansas City's job to make sure, starting Thursday night, the national sports media begins composing Peyton Manning's epitaph. It's Kansas City's job to make Manning, and Elway, and Denver, and their fans, start asking questions they don't want to ask.
What I can tell you, regarding age curves, is that, when a QB reaches a certain age, a bad season tends to be their last one. Looking at the statistics from year-to-year, Brian Burke writes:
In fact, if you simply remove the very last season of each QB's career from the data, age-related decline virtually disappears.
Other QB aging graphs show the same trend: a sudden decline. In other words, there isn't much decline at all until omg what happened to our quarterback!?!?!?
We won't know when Manning's bad year is happening until it's happening. But when it's happening, it will feel less like the wrong side of the hill and more like the wrong side of the cliff. Quoting Burke again:
The bottom line is that very successful quarterbacks like Manning aren't going to become bad slowly. All of [the] sudden one year, they'll have significant drop-off in performance. If they were 26 and had the same kind of season or had a similar injury, they'd no doubt be back at camp the following July. But at 36, that job in the broadcast booth will seem quite enticing. Successful, established QBs will generally continue to be successful until one day they're not. [emphasis mine] We won't see it coming. But of course, everyone will pretend they did.
So I cannot tell you that this year is the last of Manning's career. Nobody can predict when Manning will take a little tumble off the cliff.
Not even Manning.
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In the last four games against Denver, the Chiefs' defense has sacked Manning twice. That's 2 sacks in 137 dropbacks, for a sack rate of 1.47%.
On the other side, Denver's defense has sacked Smith 11 times in 163 dropbacks, for a rate of 6.47%. This does not include the times Smith has evaded pressure by scrambling.
More than any single stat, the sack discrepancy has dictated the results of these rivalry games. Denver has kept Manning clean, but the Chiefs have not returned the favor to The Phoenix. As goes the sack total, so goes the game. In fact, the closest contest between the teams so far, Week 13 @ Arrowhead in 2013, saw neither team record a sack. The sack total was a draw and the Chiefs were a 4th and 4 conversion at the Denver 13-yard-line away from forcing the game to a draw.
Manning, as you probably know, gets rid of the football fast. Often in less than 2.5 seconds. He is able to negate even the best pass rushes in the league this way. So effective is Manning at running his offenses, that he has been sacked on a lower percent of his dropbacks than any QB in NFL history, at a rate of just 3.1%. Which means, yes, the Chiefs are sacking Manning 50% less often than his average sack rate.
This past Sunday, the Ravens sacked Manning 4 times in 44 dropbacks, for a rate of 9%. They held Manning to zero passing touchdowns -- only the third time that's been done since Manning came to Denver.
Luckily for Kansas City, Derrick Johnson is back, healthy, and set to break the Kansas City tackle record, Allen Bailey looks hungrier and hungrier up front, Justin Houston is eyeing a record of his own once more, and this secondary, with the addition of Marcus Peters, is prepared for anything and prepared, specifically, for turnovers.
The pressure, therefore, will come. The sacks, while hard to find against Manning, will be at our fingertips. What held this defense back last year was run defense and a lack of turnovers. C. J. Anderson will get his carries tonight, especially on a short week where there are questions about Manning's pass attack and his o-line, so the Kansas City defense will have to have a better outing in run defense than they did last week, where they allowed 98 yards on 21 carries.
But the two turnovers on Sunday were very promising. A repeat performance tonight means the defense did its job. We should expect no less from the Mad Genius' crew. The Arrowhead rumble will only help.
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Smith has never beaten the Indianapolis Colts, and has only beaten Denver once, and that was in 2006 -- his "breakout" sophomore campaign as a 22-year-old under Norv Turner. This means he has never beaten Peyton Manning.
Smith's composite line against the Manning-led Broncos looks like this:
78 of 152, 51% completion rate, for 931 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs. Plus 146 rushing yards on 19 attempts.
This is a yards per attempt average of 6.12 and an AY/A of 6.32. Believe it or not, both these numbers are worse than Smith's career average. So is the completion rate. Think about that again. These numbers are below Smith's career average -- not his averages since 2010, or since Jim Harbaugh, or since 2012; for his whole career. The Broncos have forced Smith, statisically, to play not just below his potential, but below the improvements he has clearly made through the years. That has to change if the Chiefs are to pull out a "W" against their arch-nemesis tonight.
The good news is that the film disagrees here with the stats. Pro Football Focus has Smith's games against Denver as some of the best he's had in a Chiefs uniform. The stats, therefore, seem to reflect, as tends to happen with quarterback stats, the offense as an entire unit, and not just the QB play.
If we're going to believe anything about Alex Smith this year, it's that he will take the next step. But, as we have also seen, the offense will take the next step. So if Smith's stats begin to jump, it will be largely a function of his comfort in the scheme and the players around him. Smith, the man, the quarterback, won't change all that much. He hasn't changed all that much since the middle of 2010. What has changed significantly is his supporting cast and his consistency within a system.
The Texans defense is no joke, but this offense was willing to take shots down-field, and had a few big plays. They also looked very comfortable in the first half at getting the ball out fast and hitting many receivers. Smith hit seven different Chiefs for receptions, Kansas City rushed the ball with three different "backs" (counting DAT), and #11 had a few scrambles himself. We're going to use as many play-makers, and as many parts of the field, and give as many looks as we can tonight. Nothing less than that will do against a Broncos defense that looks scary good. This is a unit that just manhandled Joe Flacco and the Ravens on Sunday. The Chiefs' offense will have to put together 4 good quarters, not just 2, to win tonight.
Let's just pray the improvements they showed in Week 1 are for real, pray for a good game-plan, and pray that Smith can mirror Manning's quick release. 2.5 seconds is all he gets against this pass rush. But if Smith plays fast, and stays clean, then this very fast offense can put up points.
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The Manning-led Broncos have only lost 13 games over the last three seasons. 9 of those have come away from home (8 road, 1 neutral location). More than half their losses have come to the same three teams: New England (3), Indianapolis (2), and Seattle (2). So there is a kind of exclusive club of franchises who have figured out how to beat Denver consistently. The Chiefs are still trying to figure out how to beat them once.
Above is a table of Denver's losses in the Manning era. In the 13 losses, Manning was sacked, on average, twice, and threw 1.5 interceptions. Even when Manning has a "bad" day behind his line, it only resutls in 1 - 3 sacks. So the Chiefs goal is not necessarily to put Manning on his ass 6 times, but to get enough consistent pressure that he makes mistakes. Part of the key to that will be good coverage. Seattle managed consistent pressure with a four man rush, which allowed them to swallow up quick routes, crossing routes, and pick plays, and even defend deep, with superior numbers.
The Chiefs have to be strong up front and hope their improved secondary, without Sean Smith, can disallow Manning's quick release to work. The remarkable thing about Manning's deep ball, and something I hope this offense can replicate this season, is that it's not typically of the Flacco/Cutler variety. It doesn't take 5/6 seconds to develop. Manning finds the susceptible spot over the top and hits it, releasing the ball, as we have said, in less than 2.5 seconds on average. Sacks on Manning, even when he's tossing it 15+ yards down-field, are difficult. So think pressure and think confusion. The secondary will have to do the rest.
As you can tell, even when a Manning offense is having a sluggish day, it is usually still pretty good. A few outliers aside, the Denver offense puts up points even when they lose, and the teams they lose to have to put up points to win. In the 13 losses, Manning's offenses have put up an average of 22 points. In 10 of the losses, they put up at least 20 points, including 4 losses where they scored 28 or more.
The Smith-led Chiefs have only put up more than 20 points on the Broncos one time in four games. That has to be two times tonight for the Chiefs to have a shot. And they have never scored more than 28. I don't think it will have to come to that -- Thursday night games tend to feature ineffectual offenses, so let's envision a lowish-scoring defensive battle tonight, not a shoot-out -- but the Chiefs cannot expect to scrape by with 13 points. It's possible, but not likely. To win tonight, Smith and the improved offense need to put up close to 28.
On defense, the Chiefs have failed to keep Denver below 24, giving up 27, 35, 24, and 29 points. So both sides of the ball will have to accomplish, in terms of points, something they have yet to do in order to beat Denver.
Will it be easy? No. That's why it hasn't happened yet.
But on our side we have a healthy defense which has already shown a capacity for turnover creation -- something it lacked last year. And we can expect from Sutton's squad the usual blitzes and aggressiveness and pressure needed to produce sacks and mistakes.
We also have the best offensive unit of the Andy Reid era. The trio of Charles, Maclin, and Kelce will have to show up tonight, and Smith will have to play his best.
And Arrowhead might have to break its own record.