The biggest game of the year was not the 49ers-Seahawks matchup or the Bears-Lions game for first place in the NFC North last week. It is the Chiefs-Broncos game this weekend.
People have been calling my radio show or emailing me for the past three weeks wanting to discuss this matchup. Here are a number of things to investigate or ponder as you get ready to sit down and enjoy the Peyton Manning scoring machine match wits with the undefeated Chiefs driven by their great defense.
Kansas City and Denver have five common opponents so far, and they have beaten all five (Jaguars, Eagles, Giants, Raiders and Cowboys). The Chiefs beat them by a combined score of 126-48, or an average of 25-10. The Broncos had a combined score of 216-131 points, an average of 43-26. The common opponents tell the tale of the two teams. Kansas City wins with defense and the Broncos with offense.
In the upcoming game this will be the dominating issue: The other side of the ball (Kansas City's offense and the Denver defense) will have to pull their weights and just maybe do more than usual to win the game.
Let's take a look at home field as an issue in the game. The Broncos average 44 points a game at home and give up 22. The Chiefs on the road average 26 points and give up 12.
Denver will take full advantage of their no-huddle offense, where the majority of their 400 snaps is employed. The Broncos have 31 touchdowns and average more than 6 yards per no-huddle play. The no-huddle at altitude is going to be an issue for the pass-rushing Chiefs as Peyton Manning puts his team at the line of scrimmage play after play and forces the Kansas City defenders to get in their stances and prepare to rush.
Defensive players need recovery time between plays and hate getting in their stance, especially guys with their hand on the ground. The Chiefs will not counter with their own version of a no-huddle because of the noise in Denver and they simply don't use it anyway. They only have 75 snaps of it all year, almost exclusively in a desperation two-minute mode.
How will the Chiefs and Broncos counter each other? Let's take a look.
1. The Chiefs know Manning will never beat them with his legs and that means we will see a steady diet of man under/two-deep coverage schemes. The Chiefs will get corners and a nickel back on receivers with the intent to jam them and run with them knowing they have two deep safeties over the top to help.
The problem for Denver is it likes 11 personnel as its main personnel group and that becomes an issue when the Broncos flex their tight end and a linebacker has to walk out on him. The Broncos would love to see a premier pass-rushing outside linebacker like Tamba Hali or Justin Houston widen with the tight end and become less of a pass rusher. I don't think that will happen very often, but keep an eye on Julius Thomas when he is away from the offensive tackle to see how the Chiefs configure the defense.
2. The Chiefs know the Broncos' offensive tackles need help on their outside linebackers, especially if Manning maintains his 42 pass plays a game pace. In the only Broncos loss this season Manning was sacked four times by the Colts, the most he was sacked all year. Peyton is 5-9 lifetime if he is sacked four or more times. Fewer than four sacks and the tables are turned. The Chiefs have had at least four sacks in four games this year, but not against any QB like Manning.
Julius Thomas will stay in occasionally and help protect against the pass rush, but to get their passing game up and running the Broncos like him out in a pattern, leaving running back Knowshon Moreno to help one of the tackles if there isn't a blitzer he has to pick up.
Keep a close eye on third downs, especially third-and-7 or longer. Kansas City has been close to a 60 percent pressure team in those situations. Six and a half of the Chiefs' league-leading 36 sacks are by no traditional pass rushers from the secondary and inside linebackers.
Archie Manning once told me, "Peyton is like a hunting dog always looking for the blitz and welcomes the challenge." Manning has only been sacked seven times at home or once in every 29 pass plays. Here's the biggest problem KC faces on third down: Manning distributes the ball evenly among his receivers and backs. Look at the numbers below. Who do the Chiefs' focus on?
|2013 Denver Broncos: Third down distribution|
3. The perception is that the Chiefs have the better defense -- and they just might -- but when it comes to run defense the Broncos give up 3.4 a carry and the Chiefs give up 5.0 a carry. Could the Chiefs be in for a long day of Denver running the ball?
Kansas City realizes Denver has run the ball more than it has and must prepare for at least 28-30 run plays and maybe more. A Denver run plan would take some of the pressure off their offensive tackles. Denver already averages 31 rushing attempts at home and the Chiefs can't overplay the pass or Manning will quickly check to the run. Manning loves balance on offense and his team is very close to 50/50 run-pass on first downs. When you are watching this game and Denver goes no-huddle on second down be ready for the run, especially if KC is in nickel defense and can't substitute.
Manning told me over the summer that he really likes the "pistol" formation in these situations because it gives him a chance to run the ball where he wants. Denver is the best second-down conversion team in the NFL, moving the chains over 42 percent of the time on second down. Kansas City is in the bottom half of the league stopping second-down conversions.
4. The Broncos know Alex Smith has only thrown two touchdown passes on the road this year, which is hardly enough to stay up with the Denver offense even if the Chiefs defense can slow the Broncos down to 26 points. Alex Smith will not turn the ball over and the proof of that is just one turnover in four road games. He has been sacked 10 times on the road or one in 15 pass plays.
I don't expect the Broncos to focus on Smith or overplay him with a lot of blitzing. They will want good pass rush up front with an eye on containing him because he has already run for more yards this season than he ever did in his career. Smith is on pace for close to 100 rushes and 475 yards. The Broncos can't let him escape or break contain on the bootleg.
Keep an eye on the outside rushers for Denver (Von Miller and Shaun Phillips). They can't afford to cross the face of tackles Brandon Albert and Eric Fisher and let Smith get out the gate. Look for Denver to really pack in the underneath zones and dare Smith to throw deep. Smith needs to throw deep early in this game because Denver is going to play to the scouting report that says Smith only has 15 attempts all year over 20 yards with just four completions and one touchdown.
5. The problem of Jamal Charles is the main focus of the Denver defense. Charles has touched the ball or been targeted 27 times a game. It breaks down to 19 runs and eight targets in the passing game. Charles gets the ball on half of the first-down plays and until Smith throws the ball down the field in these situations you will see Denver overplay the Charles run game on first downs.
Finally, this game is a classic case for winning with defense or offense. The old-school guys still say defense wins championships. Bill Cowher said to me, "Defense gets you to the playoffs but a quarterback wins a Super Bowl."
It has been 13 years since the Ravens won a Super Bowl with a great defense and a marginal offense. This Sunday we get a peek at which philosophy might work in 2013. I went back and looked at what happened this season when a top 10 defensive team played a top 10 offensive team and the defenses have the upper hand by a significant margin.
I think the Chiefs will hold the Broncos to their lowest point total of the year, but I don't think the Chiefs can top that total with their offense. I'll take the Broncos at home to win 24-20 and I may go the other way in the rematch in Kansas City.