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5 things to watch as the Chiefs play the Broncos in snowy Denver

Two AFC West rivals are facing off for the second time in 18 days.

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Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

For the third consecutive game, the (6-1) Kansas City Chiefs are facing a division rival. For the second time in that stretch, it’s the (2-5) Denver Broncos. The game will be played on Empower Field at Mile High, kicking off at 3:25 p.m. Arrowhead Time on Sunday.

According to DraftKings Sportsbook, the Chiefs are favored by 7 points.

In Week 6, Kansas City defeated Denver 19-8 — but that score doesn’t represent how much the Chiefs controlled the game through all four quarters. While the Kansas City offense failed to consistently finish in the red zone, its defense suffocated the Broncos’ offense until the game’s final minutes.

With a trip to Germany on the horizon, Kansas City still has to lock in for this divisional game — or this could become another of the league’s infamous trap games.

I have five things to watch on a cold, wintery Sunday afternoon.

1. Finishing drives

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Perry Knotts/Getty Images

In the Week 6 matchup, the Chiefs entered the red zone on five possessions. In the first four, the unit only scored just 13 points. That was unacceptable — but in this game, that should be better.

It would start with being better on first down in the red zone. On each of those four Week 6 drives, the Chiefs had a negative play on first and 10 in the red zone. Once the offense was so far behind the sticks, the condensed space forced incompletions for a passing offense that had no problems between the 20-yard lines.

The running game will be a factor here, but so will quick passes to get playmakers the ball on the run. No team has allowed more yards after catch this year than the Broncos, and the Chiefs produce the league’s most YAC. That comes from play design — and that will be key to finishing Sunday’s possessions.

2. Defending the run

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

After a season-high 145 rushing yards in Denver’s win over the Green Bay Packers last week, the Broncos now have the league’s fourth-highest rushing yards per attempt.

Starting running back Javonte Williams — now two games removed from an injury to his hip flexor — had a season-high 82 rushing yards against the Packers. He and rookie Jaleel McLaughlin combined for five carries that gained 10 or more yards.

The last time, the Chiefs stifled Denver’s rushing attack — but this time, linebacker Nick Bolton’s wrist injury is forcing him to miss this game. As much of a playmaker linebacker Drue Tranquill has proven himself to be, Bolton has been the main defender running downs, so watch for Denver to try and exploit this matchup.

3. A more consistent rushing attack

NFL: Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

No team has allowed more rushing yards this season than the Broncos. On average, teams are rushing for 167 yards a game against Denver; the 5.5 yards-per-carry rate is also the league’s highest mark.

In the Week 6 game, the Chiefs only managed 96 rushing yards — the fewest Denver has surrendered since Week 1. A high-powered rushing attack wasn’t needed to get to the red zone — but to my first point, it might have helped once the offense got there.

In addition, there is snow on the ground in Denver — and cold temperatures are expected for the game. That may lead Kansas City to lean more on the ground game. As right guard Trey Smith told reporters this week: “Cold weather is big guy weather.”

The last time the Chiefs played in this kind of Denver weather, the team rushed for 101 yards and two scores in a 43-16 win during the 2020 season.

4. Getting after Russell Wilson

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

In Week 6, Broncos’ quarterback Russell Wilson was sacked four times. In the rest of his games this season, he has been sacked less than three times per game.

The Chiefs pressured Wilson on 38% of his dropbacks, allowing just three completions on those 11 pressures. The Chiefs also batted three of his passes — something they’ve done more than any team this season.

Wilson has the league’s fifth-most batted passes. With lengthy defensive lineman Charles Omenihu now in the rotation, releasing a pass over the line will be even more difficult. In his debut last week, Omenihu batted down a pass that became an interception.

5. Justin Watson’s return

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

When wide receiver Justin Watson went down in noticeable pain against the Broncos in Week 6, no one expected he’d be back to play in Week 8. But he was a full participant in practice on Friday, working through the dislocated elbow he suffered less than three weeks ago.

His sudden return will impact the wide receiver rotation. Wide receiver Mecole Hardman ran eight routes last week — one of them a vertical shot that turned into an interception. With Watson’s deep speed back in the lineup, Hardman’s role in the offense could be reduced even further.

Watson’s return may also impact the snaps that wide receiver Skyy Moore gets. With rookie Rashee Rice emerging as the primary slot receiver, Moore has played more on the outside. A healthy Watson (and Marquez Valdes-Scantling) will run the majority of those routes, so Moore will be back to competing for snaps in the slot.

Moore will be going against Kadarius Toney and Hardman, both of whom have open-space ability that Moore simply hasn’t shown so far. The Chiefs value a dynamic player in the open field. Moore lacks the elusiveness and speed that the other two have shown — even if those displays have been inconsistent.

If Moore is phased out, it won’t be because he doesn’t have skill; he’s a solid player. But in the slot, the team needs playmaking right now.

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