Let’s begin here, so nobody is confused: the Broncos are one of the best teams in the NFL with what might be the best offense in league history. If the Chiefs win in Denver, it would be the biggest accomplishment of any team so far this season.
So we’re all clear on that?
Good, because this is also true:
The Chiefs can do it, and not just in one of those puncher’s-chance, hey-this-is-the-NFL way that anything can and often does happen.
No. The Chiefs are engineered in specific ways that make them uniquely positioned to beat the Broncos.
With some help from a scout, let’s go over those ways.
The first thing and most important thing is that the Chiefs are among the league’s best pass-rushing teams.
You can see this in their league-high 36 sacks — Tamba Hali and Justin Houston are each in the top five individually — and you can see it in more nuanced measurements, like Monday Morning Quarterback’s Pressure Points, orPro Football Focus
’ video-enhanced metrics.
The Broncos are vulnerable here. They’re playing a backup left tackle, and a season-ending injury to their starting center has forced a creative and precarious makeshift solution that includes moving a guard to center, a tackle to guard, and playing another backup at right tackle.
Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is, somehow, tracking the most successful season of his Hall of Fame career but if there’s a way to diminish his powers it’s with pressure — lots of pressure. The eye test of our scout and Pro Football Focus’ numbers agree that Manning goes from cold-blooded quarterback cyborg to something closer to average when pressured.
That doesn’t mean blitzing, and this is an important point because Manning has seen every blitz and every disguise that NFL defensive coordinators have imagined over the last 16 years. Generally, he treats such tactics with amusement and success.
The key, then, is to bring pressure without blitzing, which is how Robert Mathis and the Colts held Manning to his lowest completion percentage (59.2) of the season in the Broncos’ only loss. Manning also threw his worst passes of the Chargers game against pressure, including two that could’ve been intercepted.
Manning needed an MRI on Monday to be sure his throbbing right ankle could be ready by Sunday night, so an already stiff quarterback is made even more immobile. He’s fumbled seven times already this season, mostly when pass rushers reach him while he’s throwing.
“Those two guys on the edge (Hali and Houston) are exactly what you want to have a chance against Peyton,” our scout says. “And if (Dontari Poe) can collapse the pocket against the interior of that line, even better.”
The Chiefs are also well-equipped in the secondary against the Broncos, who may have the best and deepest group of receivers in the league. Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith are big cornerbacks, among the strongest in football, and their task will be to lock Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker at the line of scrimmage. Thomas, in particular, has a reputation of struggling against physical coverage.
Covering Julius Thomas, Denver’s gifted tight end, will likely fall in large part on Chiefs safety Eric Berry. Berry is having the best year in a career that already includes two Pro Bowls, and held up very well against the Browns’ Jordan Cameron, who trails only Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates in receptions and yards among tight ends. Brandon Flowers, then, can potentially be left in the slot to deal with the smaller and quicker Wes Welker.
There’s also the bigger issue of the Broncos having occasional problems with turnovers. Their offense is so explosive it can cover up mistakes, but they are tied for fourth in most turnovers. Even if you account for the faster pace of the Broncos’ offense, only three winning teams (the 6-4 Bengals, 5-4 Jets and 5-4 Cardinals) turn the ball over more frequently. No team has forced more turnovers, or scored more touchdowns on defense than the Chiefs.
“I’m telling you,” the scout says, “the Chiefs match up pretty well. The things they do are the things you have to do against Peyton. You might not want to hear this, but I think the Broncos will win the game, just being in Denver and all that. But the Chiefs will be their biggest challenge of the season, at least on offense.”
We all know the Chiefs struggle on offense, but they do have one thing going in their favor here. Many in football circles believe the best way to beat the Broncos is with offense, sort of a fight-fire-with-fire train of thought, and it’s true that their only loss (at Indianapolis) and closest win (at Dallas) have come against the two highest-scoring teams they’ve played.
But there’s a counter to that argument, that you beat Manning and the Broncos by eliminating as much of Manning as possible. The Chargers, for instance, held Denver to their lowest totals in points and yards by hogging the ball for more than 38 minutes of game action.
Manning actually played one of his better games against the Chargers, statistically — 25 of 36 for 330 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. But because the Chargers were intent on shortening the game, the Broncos ran only 58 plays — seven fewer than their previous low, and 13 fewer than their season average.
Say what you will about the Chiefs’ shortcomings on offense, but only four teams are better at winning time of possession.
Again, the Broncos are terrific. Quarterback is the most important thing, and Manning is the best in the league. Their one loss came on the road, against another great team, through the fog of a week of distractions and they still put up 33 points and fumbled away chances to score more.
There’s a reason the Broncos opened as an 8 1/2 -point favorite over the Chiefs, in other words. Only Seattle, playing at home against the sorry Vikings, is a bigger favorite this weekend.
None of what we talked about here means the Chiefs will win in Denver. There is a decent possibility that no team will win in Denver this year.
It’s just that if you were to build a team to beat the Broncos, you’d build a team that looks a lot like the Chiefs.
Just with a better offense.