For the regular-season finale, the Chiefs will travel to Empower Field at Mile High to play the Denver Broncos — a team that was officially eliminated from the playoffs last weekend.
After putting themselves in playoff contention at 7-6, the Broncos have lost three straight games — all to potential AFC playoff teams: the Cincinnati Bengals, Las Vegas Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers.
In those three matchups, they’ve averaged 12 points per game — which has dragged their scoring average to the league’s 23rd-ranked rate. For the season, they’ve generally been an average offense — but rank towards the bottom of the league in both third-down rate and red-zone conversion percentage.
But Denver has the NFL’s third-best scoring defense, while also ranking ninth in total yards allowed. That scoring average has been aided by a red-zone defense that ranks third in touchdown percentage. However, the Broncos have the 27th-ranked third-down conversion percentage and are 21st in total defensive DVOA.
After losing starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to injury during their Week 15 loss, the Broncos have started third-year player Drew Lock. The former second-round pick has done his best to be a steady hand at the wheel. Since taking over, he has earned a 66.1% completion rate, 8.2 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 102.8 passer rating.
Even though he has been a limited participant in practice this week with a throwing-shoulder injury, Lock is the projected starter for Saturday’s game. His backup would be second-year quarterback Brett Rypien.
Denver wants to protect Lock with the running game; even though one was a blowout, he hasn’t topped 25 pass attempts in either of his starts. When he is trusted to throw, it’s usually from play-action or with extra protection — because Lock likes to hang onto the ball. Per Pro Football Focus, only three starting quarterbacks have longer average times to throw. He’s also been sacked on 8.4% of his dropbacks. If he had enough attempts to qualify, that would be the NFL’s sixth-highest rate.
Broncos have been playing it safe with Lock at QB, using the run game and quick passes to avoid any INTs in the 2 1/2 games he's played— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 6, 2022
But Lock didn't pass on his opportunities to push it downfield last week pic.twitter.com/7XeLKEMKoS
But hanging onto the ball also leads to passes thrown further downfield; in the Week 17 loss, he went long to receivers like Courtland Sutton and Seth Williams.
Broncos will be without Bridgewater after his injury, so you gotta imagine they'll ride the ground game with Lock or Rypien under center— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 6, 2022
Javonte Williams -- without Melvin Gordon to complement him -- still gashed the #Chiefs in Week 13 pic.twitter.com/AHOd7YidtR
Denver gashed the Chiefs for 154 rushing yards on 31 carries in the first matchup between these two teams. Without veteran running back Melvin Gordon, rookie Javonte Williams earned 102 yards — with 83 of them coming after contact. But lately, that duo hasn’t been as efficient. In the last three weeks, 68 carries between the two have resulted in 206 yards — just over three yards an attempt. They’ve only scored once during that stretch.
One of the reasons is the status of the Broncos’ offensive line. Starting left guard Dalton Risner was recently placed on injured reserve — and right tackle Bobby Massie missed last week’s game on the Reserve/COVID list.
In Week 13, Denver took away the Chiefs’ favorite receivers: Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. They combined for only five catches for 49 yards.
Denver could be missing some key pieces of their defense on Sunday, but it won't change their strategy to be physical in coverage with Kelce— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 6, 2022
They limited him to 3 catches for 27 yards in Week 13, roughing him up a bit in the process pic.twitter.com/QdxiW83gyI
As most teams have done this year, Denver played Kelce with a heightened level of physicality. But just one other team has held the tight end to fewer yards — and no team has held him to a lower catch percentage (37.5%).
In general, the Denver back end played the two-high zone coverages that have sometimes disrupted the Kansas City offense — but you wouldn’t describe it as a soft zone. Safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are instinctual enough to play downhill — while also taking care of deeper coverage responsibilities.
Jackson, however, was placed on IR this week — and the Broncos will also be without cornerbacks Patrick Surtain II and Ronald Darby.
The Denver pass rush could also be impacted by injury. Starting defensive tackle Shelby Harris is listed as questionable for the game. Along with Dre’Mont Jones, the Broncos’ interior defensive line can field an offensive passing attack: the two have combined for 10.5 sacks to lead the team — and also lead the team in pressures.
Along the edge, starters Bradley Chubb and Malik Reed are capable of collapsing a pocket — but in recent games, that hasn’t been the case. Over the last three weeks, they’ve combined for just six pressures and no sacks.
The bottom line
When Denver has the ball, they will try to win with an efficient rushing attack; if they can’t get that done, they’ll be facing Kansas City’s resurgent pass rushers and a secondary hungry to take advantage of mistakes. When they take their shots, the Chiefs’ cornerbacks will have to deal with Denver’s talented receiving corps.
On offense, the Chiefs will just need their secondary weapons to step up; the Broncos have made it clear they don’t want to be beaten by Kelce or Hill. That would point towards the ground game having a big part in the offense — which would help neutralize Denver’s pass rushers.