The first thing to know about beating Peyton Manning is that you don’t have to be perfect.
By some combination of justified respect for a Hall of Fame career and the normal football tendency to overstate the opponent’s strengths, most teams face Manning with the internal pressure of thinking they have to be perfect to beat him. It has almost become part of the preparation.
Actually, the Chiefs are one of those teams. Before going to Denver for what turned out to be a 24-17 loss on Sept. 14, defensive back Chris Owens said: “I don’t want to be a cliché, but we’ve got to play a perfect game to beat him.”
That was just two months ago, but so much has changed since then. The Chiefs host the Broncos next weekend for a Sunday Night Football showdown in what could be the most important game of their season.
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That’s especially true after the Chiefs’ limp loss in Oakland on Thursday. Beating the Broncos went from a nice opportunity to take first place to a potentially desperate fight to maintain a playoff spot. The Chiefs have beaten all three teams that have beaten the Broncos this year, and there is a real, non-fairytale way they can be the fourth.
Thankfully for the Chiefs, they are facing a different Broncos team than the one that beat them in September. Thankfully for the Chiefs, they are a different team than the one that lost in Denver. Perfection is not required to beat the Broncos. More than half of an NFL season has shown that. Very good, especially in the right ways and at the right times, can be enough.
Manning is having another terrific season. He is the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and MVP awards. At the moment, he is leading the league with 30 touchdown passes. Only Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo (barely) have a higher passer rating.
But there are some flaws. His current interception rate is the highest it has been since he joined the Broncos, and he’s thrown two picks in each of his last three games — the first time he’s done that since 2010. He’s only lost two regular-season games by double digits, and both were in the last month.
The Chiefs have their own issues, of course, but Denver’s 22-7 loss to the Rams last weekend represents Manning’s fewest points in a full game since 2001. The Broncos have real concerns, too.
The Chiefs have only beaten Manning once in 13 tries including the playoffs, and that was 10 years ago.
They can end that streak next week, and they don’t need to be perfect to do it. They’ll only need to be better than the Broncos.
In an important game played in front of a national television audience, this may be their best chance to beat Manning in the last decade.
The thing that football people always talk about when analyzing Manning is that you need pressure. This is true of playing virtually all quarterbacks, of course, but it takes on increased importance when coaches build game plans against Manning.
And there is a lot of truth to that, certainly. Using the numbers from Pro Football Focus, five teams have been able to pressure Manning on 22 percent or more of his dropbacks this season. Three of them beat the Broncos. The Chiefs have built much of what they are on defense around pressuring quarterbacks.
The problem with the pressure-at-all-costs narrative is that it muddies the message about how much to blitz Manning. Three teams have blitzed Manning more than one third of the time, and have given up more than 1,000 yards and 10 passing touchdowns in three losses.
The trick — and this is something Romeo Crennel figured out early in having relative success against Manning as both a defensive coordinator and head coach — is in picking the right times to blitz.
Manning is probably the NFL’s least mobile quarterback, so you don’t have to worry about him running. And he’s more effective the quicker he throws, so dropping more defenders into coverage makes it harder on him. Then, the well-timed blitz can be even more disruptive. The Chiefs blitzed Manning just once in week two.
Manning’s preparation and pre-snap problem-solving are fairly legendary, but it’s interesting that in recent weeks he’s made some uncharacteristic mistakes. He’s so good in the film room that a weakness one game is often a strength the next, so planning against Manning is sometimes best done in a vacuum.
But if you look at his last three games (the Broncos play the Dolphins on Sunday), there are clues on how the Chiefs might be able to take advantage.
Three weeks ago against the Patriots — who pressured Manning a little more than a quarter of the time despite blitzing on fewer than one of seven snaps — Manning threw an interception because he misread the coverage. The Patriots showed blitz, but rushed only four.
Linebacker Rob Ninkovich initially dropped back and to the sideline, but either by design or his own read of the play, went to the middle after about three steps. Demaryius Thomas was open over the middle, but Manning never saw Ninkovich coming from the other side. With perfect timing, he stepped in front of Thomas for the interception.
This is an example of how even Manning can be fooled by coverage.
Two weeks ago against the Raiders — who despite being just 1-10 do have a good pass rush — Manning threw an interception because he made a floating throw into a window that required a bullet.
The Raiders blitzed on the play — one of only nine blitzes on 44 dropbacks — but the Broncos picked it up and Manning had all the time he needed. Emmanuel Sanders was coming across the middle, about 20 yards downfield from the pocket. He wasn’t open, exactly, but Manning has completed a lot of passes to guys who aren’t exactly open. The problem here was that the ball came in too high, a touch too late, and much too wobbly.
This is an example of how Manning can’t always make the throws that require more brawn than brain.
Last week against the Rams — another bad team and good pass rush — Manning threw an interception because pressure from a blitz forced him to throw too quickly.
Linebacker Alec Ogletree initially showed blitz to Manning’s left, but after the snap he dropped into coverage on tight end Jacob Tamme. The blitz was coming from Manning’s right, with cornerback E.J. Gaines — the former Mizzou star — stunting through the gap between the tackle and guard. Manning threw a back-shoulder pass to Tamme, but Ogletree had perfect coverage and turned around in time to make the play.
This is an example of the right blitz in the right situation giving guys in coverage a chance to change the game.
So Manning can be had, perhaps more realistically now than at any recent time in his amazing career.
But the Chiefs have to make certain advantages work for them.
If you were to build a defense to beat Peyton Manning, it would actually look a lot like the Chiefs’. You’d want pass rushers like Justin Houston and Tamba Hali who can create pressure without the help of blitzes, and you’d want a strong presence along the defensive line, with guys like Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey, who can push the pocket backward.
And you’d want athletic and aggressive defensive backs, like Sean Smith and Eric Berry, who can take advantage of that extra microsecond that it takes Manning’s passes to reach their target.
The Chiefs should also have at least three lucky breaks going in their favor.
First, they get three extra days of preparation after playing the Raiders on Thursday. The Chiefs’ coaches — not just Andy Reid, but the coordinators and assistants — have shown an effective creativity, so the extra time should help both players’ bodies and the game plan.
Second, especially with the late kickoff, temperatures could be near or below freezing at Arrowhead Stadium. Like many things in the NFL, the story about Manning’s struggles in the cold has probably been overstated, but it’s true that he’s not as good when the temperature drops.
And third, the Raiders gashing the Chiefs on the ground last week exposed what’s always been a weak run defense. But the Chiefs’ vulnerability there should be diminished somewhat by injuries to Denver running backs Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball. For all the focus on Manning, the Broncos’ three losses this season are also the three games in which they could not run effectively at all.
In the context of the Chiefs’ season, the implications of the Broncos game are enormous. The Chiefs would match the Broncos’ record with a win, though their loss to the Raiders would at least for the moment give Denver the division tiebreaker. Beating the Broncos would break down a mental barrier of sorts against the division kings, and keep the Chiefs in the current playoff picture with four games left.
For a full decade, the days leading up to a game against Manning have been like the slow music as the teenagers walk around a dark house in a horror movie.
He is still one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, and the Broncos are still one of the better teams around. The Chiefs will need to do a lot right to win their biggest game of the year.
They can wash away the lowest moment of their season with what would be the highest.
And, for once against Peyton Manning, they don’t need to be perfect. Just very good.