The AFC champions are here, and it is quite possible that the gap between them and the Chiefs is the smallest of any point in more than 10 years. This is true whether we’re talking about the Broncos, who are in the Super Bowl for the second time in three years, or more generally about whatever team represents the Chiefs’ side of the bracket in America’s greatest sports spectacle.
The Chiefs aren’t that far away from being here, in other words, playing in the NFL’s showcase event — but this is not that kind of column. This is not the case for the Chiefs winning the AFC West or playing in next year’s Super Bowl as much as it is an examination of why neither of those happened this season.
In the end, the takeaway might be more about frustration than opportunity.
Because as many traits as the Chiefs and Broncos share, it’s the differences that stick out.
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“To play with a fanatical effort and relentless pursuit of the ball,” Broncos linebacker Von Miller says when asked what separates his defense from others. “That has won games for us. You could think back to the Chiefs game (at Arrowhead). Fanatical effort, relentless pursuit to the ball won that game for us with (Bradley) Roby’s play. That would have to be our mentality.”
In admittedly oversimplified terms, the Chiefs may have some advantages over the Broncos, but too many of their strengths aren’t, well, as strong as Denver’s. Too many of the things the Chiefs do well, the Broncos do better. Some of the ways the Chiefs have built themselves, the Broncos have built better.
This year marks the first time since 2004 that the Chiefs’ starting quarterback had a higher passer rating than the AFC champion’s starting quarterback. Whether Denver’s quarterback next season is Peyton Manning or, more likely, Brock Osweiler, the Chiefs are likely to have the better player at the sport’s most important position.
Osweiler had some nice moments in 2016, of course, most notably wins over the Patriots and Bengals (both at home). He also threw too many interceptions and incompletions for the type of passes he was asked to make. He would presumably improve with more experience, but Alex Smith just played the best full season of his career — top 10 in completion percentage, lowest interception rate, adjusted yards per attempt, passer rating and QBR — and is not yet at the age at which you’d expect a decline.
So, even with better quarterback play this season, the Chiefs still finished behind the Broncos and were eliminated in the playoffs by a team that was eliminated by the Broncos. We can focus on Justin Houston and Jeremy Maclin being hurt, or a rotten start to the season meaning they played at New England while the Broncos got that game in Denver, and those are fair points, but also more the symptom than disease.
Because even in a year where Manning’s body and physical ability took a drastic decline, the Broncos were able to absorb and adjust and still take the AFC’s No. 1 seed. It was a missed opportunity for the Chiefs to be here instead of the Broncos, and for Chiefs fans, hearing the Broncos talk about their strengths must be a little like being proud of your cheeseburger but hearing your neighbor talk about his steak.
“When you have rushers like me and Von, you have quarterbacks that get the ball out so fast,” defensive end DeMarcus Ware says. “It sort of messes up the timing. I’m talking about how it sort of goes hand in hand when you have good corners, when you have good pass rushers, one guy’s buying more time for the other guy, or creating pressure that create those big plays or they’re giving us enough time to get to the quarterback.”
The examination of the Broncos can be discouraging for Chiefs fans. The explosion of offense across the last decade or so has given the appearance that teams need to be strong on that side of the ball to win. But that’s not necessarily the case. Of the 20 teams to make the last 10 Super Bowls, 11 have ranked higher on defense than offense.
There is not just one way to get here, and anyone who says otherwise isn’t paying attention. Defense wins just as often as offense.
So that’s good for the Chiefs, who last year gave five of their seven biggest salary cap hits for defensive players. The problem is the Broncos are still better defensively, by advanced metrics such as Football Outsiders’ DVOA (though barely: the Broncos ranked first, the Chiefs second), yards, and yards per play. The Broncos ranked fourth in points against, giving up nine more than the Chiefs, who ranked third.
That general pattern — the Chiefs are good, the Broncos just a little better — can be seen in other ways, too. Sean Smith (who may leave in free agency) and Marcus Peters are among the sport’s best pair of cornerbacks, but Denver’s Chris Harris and Aqib Talib are likely the best.
Houston and Tamba Hali give the Chiefs one of the league’s best pair of pass rushers, but Denver’s Miller and Ware are generally regarded as better. The Chiefs selected Dee Ford for depth at the position, but Shane Ray and Shaq Barrett give the Broncos the better overall position group.
Houston is a terrific player, and probably underrated in his ability to play both the run and the pass. But he’s also missed chunks of two of the last three seasons with injury, while Miller has played all but eight regular season games in five years.
As Hali contemplates retirement, Ware isn’t quite in his prime but is still one of the game’s best edge rushers. He is so quick off the snap that he’s been called offsides when he really wasn’t, enough that the Broncos sent the tape to the league and sometimes warn refs before games not to be fooled by the unnatural quickness.
Ware represents another way the Broncos are so successful — they navigate the salary cap and free agency better than perhaps anyone. Part of that is their ability to avoid dead money, and part of it is their remarkable efficiency with free agents — Ware, Talib, Emmanuel Sanders (who the Chiefs thought they had a deal with) and T.J. Ward.
This is where the Chiefs must try to close the gap. They accomplished a lot in 2015, including the first playoff win in 22 years, undeniably important for the franchise. But viewed in another light, the AFC this year was a missed opportunity for the Chiefs.
The Broncos are here because they consistently added what they needed to turn good into great. The Chiefs have some ground to make up in order to be at this game next year.
They can do it, and have shown an encouraging and steady improvement since Andy Reid and John Dorsey took over. It’s just that the overall history shows why it’s been the Broncos here twice in three years, including the year the Chiefs had their best season in more than a decade.