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Five things to watch as the Chiefs face the Broncos

It’s the first meeting of the season between two longtime AFC West rivals.

NFL: DEC 15 Broncos at Chiefs Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As you’ll recall, the last time the Kansas City Chiefs played against the Denver Broncos, a winter blizzard unloaded onto Arrowhead Stadium. Aesthetically (and as a Chiefs fan), it was fun to watch. Kansas City dominated in a 23-3 win — and quarterback Patrick Mahomes revealed that he could “spin it in anything” as he threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns.

For Sunday’s matchup between these division rivals, it may look like it did in Week 15 last season; at the 3:25 (Arrowhead Time) kickoff, Denver forecasters expect snow.

After starting 0-3, the Broncos have won two consecutive road games — including last week’s 18-12 win over the New England Patriots. Starting quarterback Drew Lock is back from injury — and he’ll look to score more than the three points they put up in last year’s matchup.

A Chiefs’ slip-up could open the door for both Denver and the Las Vegas Raiders in the AFC West — while a win would extend the Chiefs’ winning steak against the Broncos to ten games.

I have five things to watch in the Week 7 battle:

1. Le’Veon Bell’s usage

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

After almost 10 days of anticipation, Chiefs fans will hopefully get a peek at running back Le’Veon Bell.

Chiefs head coach Andy Reid did not give a clear answer when asked how Bell would be used in his first opportunity to play with his new team. He said they’ll taking his usage “day by day” — and that they would see how it goes during this week’s practices.

Bell isn’t used to a light load. In his career, he’s never played fewer than 22 snaps — and has had single-digit carries on just three occasions. He had eight in one New York Jets game last season; the Pittsburgh Steelers never gave him fewer than 12 touches.

Bell has said that he wants to reinvent himself with the Chiefs — and did acknowledge that he might get the ball less often because of all the offensive talent the Chiefs possess. Limited time to learn the playbook will also a factor; Bell may not see the usage to which he’s accustomed right away.

If he does make his Chiefs debut against the Broncos, look to see how he’s used in passing situations. Whether he’s in blocking or being used as a receiving weapon, third down (or any passing down) is where he is likely to make his initial impact.

2. The Chiefs defensive front

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

In Week 6, the Chiefs’ secondary had a great game defending deep passes — and even intercepted one. But in the win against the Buffalo Bills, the biggest standouts were in the defensive front seven.

Linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson each had two run stops; the two have combined for ten in the last two weeks. Of late, Hitchens has been playing some of his best football. In the last three weeks, he has achieved the second-highest PFF tackling grade among NFL linebackers.

Along the line, defensive end Frank Clark and defensive tackle Chris Jones combined for 10 pressures and three quarterback hits. Neither, however, had as many pressures as defensive end Alex Okafor, who totaled six in only nine pass-rushing snaps. In the running game, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi made two big tackles.

The Chiefs held the Bills to 83 rushing yards on 24 attempts — just 3.5 yards per carry. In Week 6, Denver was able to win with a similar rate on 37 attempts, but the Chiefs’ defensive front is playing well. To win this game, they’ll need to keep it up.

3. The Chiefs’ starting offensive line

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Buffalo Bills Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Against the Bills, the starting offensive line didn’t make it to the second drive. Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz left the game early — and hasn’t practiced this week. Center Daniel Kilgore was in for every play for the offense, and Andy Reid said he would be starting on Sunday.

So the same line that paved the way for that historic rushing performance will take the field against Denver: left tackle Eric Fisher, left guard Nick Allegretti, center Kilgore, right guard Andrew Wylie and right tackle Mike Remmers. As a whole, they turned in a stellar performance last week — but if they want to keep their starting jobs, players like Kilgore and Allegretti will have to replicate it.

When Schwartz is ready to return, the Chiefs will have to make a choice between Remmers and Allegretti at left guard. At center, Reid has cited some soreness in Austin Reiter’s knee that has prevented him from starting. If Kilgore continues to play well, there’s no reason for Reiter to return to the lineup. Either way, he will be a free agent after this season.

4. Travis Kelce’s impact

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

In the last matchup with the Broncos, tight end Travis Kelce saw six more passes from Mahomes than anyone else, hauling in 11 for 142 yards — nine of those for first downs.

Kelce turned in a great game despite the a legitimate duo of of Denver safeties; Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson make up one of the league’s best tandems. Simmons earned second-team All-Pro honors last season, while Jackson is a versatile veteran who has played very well in his two years with the Broncos. These two will be in charge of limiting Kelce’s effectiveness in the middle of the field.

With this focus on Kelce, it should help open things up for wide receivers Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman and Byron Pringle; with starting receiver Sammy Watkins out for the game, the defense will have their eyes on Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

If they are successful at limiting Kelce’s production, watch to see if it helps other players produce.

5. Denver’s revamped receiving corps

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, Denver’s main receiving weapons against the Chiefs were wide receivers Courtland Sutton and DaeSean Hamilton. After Sutton suffered a season-ending injury, they have three other contributors leading the way in 2020.

Wide receiver Tim Patrick has emerged as Lock’s number one pass-catcher; he leads the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Tight end Noah Fant remains a prolific weapon; he had a few big catches against Kansas City in 2019. Rookie first-rounder Jerry Jeudy has emerged as a reliable receiver, leading the team in targets.

Meanwhile, rookie (and former Missouri tight end) Albert Okwuegbunam gained 45 yards on the first two catches of his career last week. Rookie speedster KJ Hamler is also in the mix; he has averaged 13 yards per catch on six receptions.