Somehow, the season's first matchup between these two AFC West foes arrives nearly two weeks into December. The Kansas City Chiefs are playing their second of three straight road games, facing the Denver Broncos in Empower Field at Mile High.
The Chiefs entered the weekend as 8.5-point favorites, according to DraftKings SportsBook.
The Chiefs can actually win the AFC West on Sunday if they take care of Denver and the Los Angeles Chargers lose at the Miami Dolphins on Sunday Night Football. It would be the first division to be decided in the NFL this season, although a few others can happen this week.
It's also a chance for the Chiefs to extend their streak of dominance over the Broncos: Kansas City has won 13 straight matchups, dating back to the 2015 season.
I have five things to watch in the 125th game of the all-time series:
1. A bounce-back game for the pass rush
The bad news: the Chiefs' pass rush was a major problem last week. The good news: it's nearly impossible to look any worse or less effective.
The combination of great pocket maneuverability and a rhythmic passing game surrendered only one quarterback hit or sack, but those talents are not matched by Broncos' quarterback Russell Wilson currently; the Denver offense has allowed the fourth-most sacks in the league.
It will take the pieces around defensive tackle Chris Jones to step up; the Bengals game revealed how bad it could look when Jones is double-teamed on nearly every pass play. Opponents will continue forcing defensive ends Frank Clark, Carlos Dunlap, and rookie George Karlaftis to win singled up against a pass blocker.
If they still can't win those individual battles this week, they need to get their hands up: batting down passes is one of the unit's strengths — and Wilson's throws from the pocket are always susceptible to a swat.
2. Riding momentum of rush attack
Since the Tennessee Titans stuffed the Chiefs' run game in Week 9, the Chiefs have rushed for 117 or more yards as a team in each of the last four weeks. In that stretch, starting running back Isiah Pacheco averaged 4.8 yards per carry, and Jerick McKinnon averaged 5.1 yards.
Pacheco has the fifth-most rushing yards in the NFL during that stretch — gelling with the offensive line to maximize run lanes more than he did earlier in the season. The bread-and-butter zone runs looked as good as they have all season last week, and that extends to the offensive line — which seemed nowhere near as good when they were asked to pass protect.
That's the key point: a strong rushing performance can mask pass-protection deficiencies and can also build back up any lost confidence from the group. Denver allows 4.5 yards per rush attempt, the 13th-highest rate in the NFL; their front is the most exploitable part of their strong defense.
3. Toughness up the defensive middle
If the pass rush was the most significant issue from last Sunday, then the tackling, block-shedding, and coverage efforts from the team's linebackers and safeties were a close second.
Every starter at those positions had multiple missed tackles; slot cornerback L'Jarius Sneed added on with three missed tackles. The defensive middle was gashed in the run game and picked apart in the pass game, too.
They can try to excuse the issues by pointing to how great the Bengals' skill-position group is, but they can't use that excuse this week. The Broncos' offense is shorthanded, missing number-one wide receiver Courtland Sutton. Their primary running back is 32 years old and was on a practice squad to start the year. Their quarterback has not escaped pressure effectively this season.
It will be a redemption game for the linebackers and safeties — but also the defensive tackles. The group's constant lack of stoutness may lead to the Chiefs bringing up Brandon Williams, the veteran run stuffer that was recently signed to the practice squad.
4. Attention on Travis Kelce
In the first game between these two teams last season, the Broncos limited tight end Travis Kelce to three catches for 27 yards on eight targets. It was one of the least efficient games of his entire career.
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
While the Denver coaching staff is new, a lot of the players in coverage are the same — and know how important it is to make life hard on Kelce: in that game, the Chiefs squeaked out only one touchdown and 16 offensive points.
They'll get physical at the line of scrimmage with him, whether it's a linebacker or a safety. He won't just have one defender's attention on a given pass play — and when the pass does go to him, he'll need to duck and cover. It was clear that Denver wanted to inflict pain with every opportunity they got last season.
5. Situational defense
When (or if) the Broncos get past the Chiefs' 20-yard line, the game will become a battle of bad situational football.
A large part of the Broncos' lackluster scoring is their inability to finish off red-zone drives: they hold the lowest rate of red-zone possessions ending in touchdowns this season while also reaching the red zone five fewer times than any other NFL team. On the flip side, the Chiefs allow a touchdown in the red zone at the NFL's third-highest rate.
That and third-down defense will be very important — because the Broncos also have one of the league's worst third-down conversion rates. The Chiefs are only ranked 20th as a third-down defense now, but we know that's when the madness of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can be its most effective.
What Denver does on early downs and before the red zone is one thing, but Kansas City needs to hold them down and keep them down situationally.