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Chiefs-Broncos Instabreakdown: Kansas City abandons running game — but still wins

Once again it wasn’t easy nor pretty, but the Chiefs are 13-3 nonetheless after defeating Denver for the 15th straight time.

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

Final Score: Kansas City Chiefs 27, Denver Broncos 24

Offense (Bryan Stewart)

Sunday afternoon was one the rare instance where quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ stat line actually looked better than his actual on-field play. Mahomes completed 29 of 42 passes for 328 yards, three touchdowns, an interception and a 106.1 passer rating. These numbers pushed his season passing yards to over 5,000. In the fourth quarter, he threw his 40th touchdown pass.

The offensive line was once again nearly flawless in pass protection. In play after play, Mahomes had all day to throw — and sometimes it appeared he might have had a little too much for his own good. In key moments, his decision-making became a bit overaggressive — and his accuracy took a dip after taking a hard hit to his legs in the opening quarter.

Kansas City’s rushing attack was just... nonexistent. Running back Isiah Pacheco led the team with just 31 rushing yards on nine attempts for 3.4 yards per carry. During the third quarter, the offense seemed to seemed to quit even trying to run the football — leading Mahomes to place too much pressure on himself. The coaching staff needs to be careful that this doesn’t happen again. Sure, Mahomes is the MVP — but by late in the game, it was obvious that he was just a tick off.

Including a pass Mahomes caught from himself, 11 different Chiefs caught passes. Wide receiver Kadarius Toney led the team with 71 receiving yards on four receptions. Running back Jerick McKinnon continued his torrid end-of-season pace with two more receiving touchdowns. It was his fifth consecutive game with a touchdown reception, which set an NFL record for running backs.

In a positive development, the offense turned the ball over just once — while the Chiefs’ defense created two of its own. That trend needs to continue.

On the negative side, Pro Bowl guard Joe Thuney left the game with an ankle injury. Wide receiver Skyy Moore also did not return after suffering a hand injury.

Offensive Player(s) of the Game: The offensive line in pass protection

For the second consecutive home game, the Chiefs' offensive line allowed little to no immediate pressure. When Mahomes did get hit, it was because he had extended a play for a very long time. The hope is that this is a developing trend that will bring out the offense’s best in the playoffs. To my eye, it was some of the best overall pass blocking the Chiefs have shown since their 2019 home playoff games against the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans.

Defense (Ron Kopp Jr.)

For the second time this year, the Chiefs’ defense gave us reasons to be optimistic coming out of a win over the Broncos — even as they allowed 28 and 24 points in these matchups.

The first thing that stood out was the speed in the defense’s back end; it was noticeable that safeties Juan Thornhill and Justin Reid were flying around at a faster tempo than normal. Reid was around the ball more than usual — whether that was from coming up on a running play or closing in on the ball in the passing game. On one third down, he tallied a defended pass — and then om another, he delivered a big hit on quarterback Russell Wilson to help force an incompletion. Thornhill tallied six total tackles — including one in the backfield.

The play-making in the back end extended to the cornerbacks, who were weaponized by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in different, unique ways. For the second consecutive week, he left L’Jarius Sneed as an outside cornerback in nickel packages, pushing rookie cornerback Trent McDuffie into the slot. Depending on the matchup, I believe that this may be the ideal alignment.

McDuffie’s stickiness in coverage — and his top-end ability to mirror the quick movements of a receiver — are among the factors that made him a first-round pick. They are also among the most important skills needed when covering dynamic slot receivers like Denver’s Jerry Jeudy, the Los Angeles Chargers’ Keenan Allen or the Buffalo Bills’ Stefon Diggs.

McDuffie also showed that he can fulfill one of the other responsibilities that comes with playing closer to the box. On a pass play late in the first half, McDuffie blitzed from the slot. forcing a fumble that was recovered by rookie defensive end George Karlaftis.

Speaking of the first-year player, he pushed his season sack total to 5.5 in Week 17 — cleaning up a frantic Wilson to get his fifth sack in six games. He also popped early in the run game, penetrating to disrupt a play that ended with only a yard gained. He and defensive end Frank Clark had impactful performances; Clark took away two screens on one drive that basically led directly to a punt.

All that added up to Denver only converting three third downs on 12 attempts. It was the second consecutive week with a remarkable tally in that category; last week, Kansas City held Seattle to only two third-down conversions on 14 attempts. Spagnuolo is noticeably dialing up more creativity in his pass-rushing packages, sending different kinds of blitzes — and it has been working.

What didn’t work on Sunday was the Chiefs’ third cornerback. Rookie Jaylen Watson appeared to come out as the starter, but Joshua Williams had to come in after Sneed left the game with an injury. Williams drew two penalties — both of which gave Denver life late in the contest. Behind McDuffie and Sneed, the Chiefs may need to be cognizant of a weak link in their secondary.

Defensive Player of the Game: Defensive tackle Chris Jones

While the rest of his teammates on the defensive line appear to be gaining momentum, it is truly all possible because of how consistently disruptive Jones is. He only totaled three tackles in the box score — but one of them was a run stop for a loss. He also closed the game out by sacking Russell Wilson on fourth down.

Jones’ 13th sack of the season is the exclamation point on a long stretch of dominance this season. The last two games, however, can make the case that he is peaking now — when it is most important.

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