The first 2021 matchup between longtime division rivals may be the most important chapter of the rivalry in half a decade.
Fresh off a bye week and riding a four-game win streak, the Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) return to action with a big game against the Denver Broncos (6-5) on Sunday Night Football in Week 13. The winner of the game will take over the top spot in the AFC West; Kansas City is currently a 9.5-point favorite to win, per DraftKings Sportsbook.
We know about the Chiefs' turnaround, but Denver has had a similar revival in the last month. They started 3-0, then lost four straight and traded future Hall-of-Fame pass rusher Von Miller away. Since that 3-4 start, they've won three of four — including two-possession victories over the Dallas Cowboys and Los Angeles Chargers.
I have five things to watch in the pivotal battle for the AFC playoff race:
1. Neutralizing the talented Denver secondary
The strength of the Broncos' defense is its secondary. They have enough talent in their defensive backfield to consistently play with five: outside cornerbacks Ronald Darby and rookie Patrick Surtain II, slot Kyle Fuller, and safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons; this group will play close to every snap.
In front of them, the talent isn't as intimidating; the first and second-level defenders have played better in Denver's recent stretch — but it's a healthy rotation of average players highlighted by defensive linemen Shelby Harris and edge rusher Bradley Chubb. The former has been limited in practice with an ankle injury, and the latter returned just last week from a procedure on his left ankle in September.
The Broncos allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to run for 216 yards in a 30-13 loss a few weeks ago. They're allowing an average of 4.4 yards per carry for the season — the 12th-highest rate in the league. One reason they are susceptible to the run is their desire to stay in nickel personnel with the aforementioned five defensive backs, no matter the offensive personnel.
Effectively running the ball is not only the way to attack, but it could also tempt the safeties to play into the box and help slow it down. That's when the offense can take the shots through the air it really wants to take.
2. Winning the line of scrimmage on defense
They've been carried by the run game, which features only two players: running backs Melvin Gordon and rookie Javonte Williams. They rushed for a combined 325 yards in those two games — doing it at a pretty even split. They each had six runs of 10 or more yards and 13 total. For comparison, Chiefs running backs Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Darrel Williams have combined for 15 such runs this season.
Gordon is officially listed as doubtful for this game, so it projects for more Williams than usual.
The Broncos' offensive line has performed well on the ground, but the chunk runs are coming from the ability to explode through tight seams and break through arm tackles. It will take a high level of effort and fundamentals by the Chiefs' defense to limit their burst into the second and third levels.
Slowing down the run on first and second down puts the offense in more difficult third-down situations. Denver ranks 23rd in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage, but stopping the run is only half the battle...
3. Defending one of the NFL's best wide-receiver trios
Coinciding with Denver's recent stretch of wins is the return of second-year wide receiver and former first-round pick Jerry Jeudy from injury. His slot presence combines with the primarily-outside alignments of receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick. Together, they make a very effective trio.
Fortunately, the Chiefs have a trio of cornerbacks that have played exceptionally well in their recent surge — but unfortunately, they may not all be good to go. Cornerback Rashad Fenton hurt his knee against the Cowboys and has been ruled out for the game. His absence would likely result in Mike Hughes returning to the three-cornerback sets.
Jeudy and cornerback L'Jarius Sneed matching up in the slot should be an exciting matchup. On the outside, Charvarius Ward's recent play breeds confidence in his matchup. However, it's possible that the Chiefs key in on stopping the run and trust their defensive backs to win their one-on-one battles.
It has worked this season — especially lately — but this is the kind of matchup that can take advantage of a defense with that strategy.
4. Clyde Edwards-Helaire's continued return
Just before the bye week, Clyde Edwards-Helaire returned to the field with 76 total yards and a touchdown against Dallas. With a week of rest to follow, there's reason to believe he can be back to the majority of touches.
In my opinion, there was some rust in Week 11. On a check-down pass, Edwards-Helaire lost his location on the field; as he caught it, he was heading out of bounds. That lack of awareness could just be from not playing. Other times, he appeared to cut horizontally instead of vertically too often.
It's a position that needs to get in a rhythm — as he did in Weeks 3 and 4 when he rushed for 100 yards in consecutive games. It felt like he was getting there against Dallas as the game wore on, but his second game back is a better opportunity to get back into a productive flow.
5. Bye-week lineup decisions
During Thursday's media availability, special teams coordinator Dave Toub told reporters that Mike Hughes had replaced Mecole Hardman as the starting punt returner moving forward. The decision invites curiosity for any other lineup changes the staff will make coming out of extended time.
Hardman's wide-receiver snaps were also declining; he saw a season-low 18 offensive snaps against the Cowboys. He isn't the only one: wide receiver Demarcus Robinson's snap count has dipped significantly over the last month. Both are happening in favor of snaps for Byron Pringle and Josh Gordon.
It'll be interesting to see if the linebacker group is shaken up at all; rookie Nick Bolton and Anthony Hitchens had been rotating at MIKE linebacker in two-linebacker sets — but Bolton appears to be the player with a higher ceiling play to play. Ben Niemann has still been manning the dime linebacker position — but could the emergence of Willie Gay Jr. make the staff think about a change there?
With everything in front of them, the organization knows they need to put the best 11 players for any given play on the field.