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5 things to watch as the Chiefs host the Broncos on Thursday night

The first AFC West battle of the season is here!

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DENVER BRONCOS VS KANSAS CITY CHIEFS, NFL Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Just four days after securing their fourth-straight victory, the 4-1 Kansas City Chiefs are welcoming the 1-4 Denver Broncos to GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium for “Thursday Night Football.” The game is set to kick off at 7:15 p.m. Arrowhead time.

DraftKings Sportsbook has the Chiefs as 11-point favorites.

It is the first AFC West game for Kansas City this year, but it leads off a stretch of three consecutive matchups with a division rival. The Broncos have already lost to the Las Vegas Raiders in 2023 — and will face the Chiefs in two of their next three games.

That means that in the next three games, Kansas City has two chances to extend their 15-game winning streak over Denver. Could it be 17 before November?

But Broncos’ head coach Sean Payton is undoubtedly tired of the embarrassing storylines — and he’d earn more than good grace from the team’s fans if he can beat the Chiefs for the first time since 2015.

I have five things to watch on Thursday night:

1. Shaking up the receiver rotation

Kansas City Chiefs v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

So far this season, wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Skyy Moore lead their position in snaps and routes run. But wideouts Justin Watson and rookie Rashee Rice lead the group in yards.

That imbalance could be what has muddied the team’s passing offense in the still-young season: its production is coming from players who are in on only 36% to 45% of the snaps, rather than the only two receivers with a snap rate of 61% or higher. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes is clearly more comfortable targeting the duo that isn’t in as often, so they should naturally be getting more of the snaps.

Week 5’s game was also a step forward in the on-field chemistry between Mahomes and Rice — a good indication that the rookie could get more playing time. His opportunities would likely come in the slot, where he has lined up in 68% of his snaps. That would mainly eat into Moore and wide receiver Kadarius Toney’s snaps.

With Travis Kelce questionable to play because of his ankle injury, getting the most productive receivers on the field more often will be even more important.

2. Feeding off the confident cornerbacks

Detroit Lions v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Chiefs’ cornerback L’Jarius Sneed is playing with a level of confidence that a defense can ride — especially when he’s paired up with the team’s other young, poised corner: Trent McDuffie.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo revealed on Monday that Sneed’s confidence is why the coach trusts him on No. 1 receivers. On Thursday, he will likely follow the Broncos’ wide receiver Courtland Sutton — but will probably also run into matchups with Jerry Jeudy, who is another dynamic wideout.

Sneed and McDuffie should be relied upon to lock down those matchups so that Kansas City’s pass rushers can pin their ears back. If they generate inconsistent pressure (like they did in the last two games) Spagnuolo sees Denver’s Russell Wilson as a quarterback who can make them pay.

“If you look at him statistically,” Spagnuolo told reporters on Monday, “he’s right up there with some of these other quarterbacks in accuracy and how he’s completing the ball. They have had some similar things happen to them that Minnesota had going — with a couple [of] turnovers (or a bad play) here or there.”

Wilson has the league’s second-most passing touchdowns (11) and the league’s fourth-best passer rating.

3. Exploiting Denver’s run defense

Kansas City Chiefs v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

No team has allowed more rushing yards than the Broncos this season: 938 yards through five weeks. Their average of 5.9 yards per attempt is also the league’s worst mark.

And it wasn’t all the Miami Dolphins during their 70-point performance in Week 3, either. the New York Jets ran up 234 yards on Denver in Week 5. In the previous game, the Chicago Bears racked up 171 yards on the ground.

In recent weeks, the Chiefs’ running game — led by an ascending Isiah Pacheco — has been impactful when it needed to be. This matchup feels like one Kansas City can (and should) exploit.

4. Nick Bolton’s return

AFC Divisional Playoffs - Jacksonville Jaguars v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

After missing three games, Kansas City’s starting MIKE linebacker Nick Bolton will play on Thursday evening. That’s a great thing — but he’s returning to a room that has played very well in his absence.

Veteran Drue Tranquill has been the team’s tackle leader over the last three weeks, flying all over the field on both running and passing downs. Before Bolton’s injury, Tranquill played 19% of the snaps in Week 1 and 42% in Week 2. But after the way he’s played more recently, it’s hard to imagine Spagnuolo returning him to a limited role. But how would he then balance the return of a dependable player like Bolton?

I think we’ll see a balanced rotation at linebacker on Thursday night — which could be the beginning of a year-long competition for snaps.

5. Which Denver pass defense shows up?

NFL Football Broncos vs Chiefs at Empower Field Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Some of Mahomes’ hardest struggles have come against the players of the Broncos’ defense. Two years ago, he set a career-low in passer rating against Denver. Last year, he threw three interceptions — including two by linebacker Josey Jewell.

But the unit is no longer coached by Vic Fangio disciple Ejiro Evero, who is now with the Carolina Panthers. Instead, Vance Joseph is now in charge. His most recent experience against the Chiefs was coaching the Arizona Cardinals’ defense in 2022 — when the Chiefs hammered the Cardinals 44-21 in Week 1.

Joseph famously blitzed Mahomes (to great failure) in that game — and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy knows it.

“The DNA of their defensive coordinator Vance Joseph is an aggressive one,” Nagy told reporters on Monday. “But playing fast and knowing where to be.”

So which Denver defense shows up on Thursday: the one whose players have previously given Mahomes fits, or the scheme that he has already shredded?

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