It took two tries, but the Chiefs proved themselves ready for prime time with a 45-10 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday night. Now, it’s back to just being the darlings of NFL RedZone with a plain old afternoon tilt against the AFC West rival Denver (3-4).
Kansas City (6-1) already beat the Broncos 27-23 earlier this season at Mile High. The Chiefs are leading the AFC, but they need to keep winning just to stay in front of Philip Rivers and the Los Angeles Chargers (5-2) in the West.
Most people had already written off Vance Joseph, Case Keenum, and Denver after a four-game losing streak. They crushed the lowly Arizona Cardinals 45-10 last week, though, so Broncos fans are hoping that there might be a run coming.
How can Kansas City keep Denver from getting up off the mat? Positive results from these three key matchups would help.
Patrick Mahomes vs. Chris Harris Jr./Bradley Roby
For most of the season, the Broncos defense has been mediocre at best. The team’s pass defense, however, has been decent, ranking 10th in the league with just under 230 passing yards allowed per contest.
Harris has been the stalwart in the defensive backfield. Roby was the weak link but broke out against the Cardinals. The former first-rounder collected his first interception of the season and was all over the field.
— PFF DEN Broncos (@PFF_Broncos) October 23, 2018
Of course, that was against Arizona rookie Josh Rosen. While he doesn’t have a whole lot more experience as a starting NFL quarterback, Mahomes has already proven that he’s a much stiffer challenge.
At Mile High, the Broncos held the Chiefs’ signal caller largely in check. Only one of Mahomes’ league leading 22 touchdowns came in that game and he only had 151 passing yards for three quarters. Unfortunately for Denver, Kansas City’s quarterback went 13-16 for 153 yards in the fourth quarter.
Sure, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, and Sammy Watkins need to get open. But, it’s on Mahomes to find them when they are. It was a fun chess match between the Chiefs’ QB and the Broncos secondary last time. Denver can’t afford to let Mahomes pick up where he left off in their previous battle.
The Broncos passing attack under Keenum has been, generously, middle-of-the-road. The biggest bright spot has been Sanders, who has 46 catches for 603 yards and three touchdowns. As the season has gone along, the wide receiver has become more of a focus of the Denver offense, going over the 100-yard mark the last two weeks.
He even helped his quarterback out with a touchdown throw of his own against the Cardinals.
Slot corner Scandrick was terrible during the early part of Kansas City’s schedule. He’s graduated since to “up and down.” The entire defensive backfield for the Chiefs have given up too many receptions, as evidenced by their league-worst 2,216 passing yards allowed.
Even though his play has improved, Scandrick is still the corner that opposing teams try to find when he’s on the field. Kendall Fuller and Steven Nelson technically have the primary responsibility of stopping Sanders and the mystifying Demaryius Thomas. It’s still a safe bet that offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will try to get Sanders against Scandrick any chance that he can.
The Broncos have had a solid rushing attack behind rookie Phillip Lindsay, but they’ll play this game without their second-leading rusher, Royce Freeman. Keeping Sanders from getting free would make Denver’s offense entirely one-note.
The Chiefs already had to adjust to playing without Laurent Duvernay-Tardif after the right guard was lost with a broken leg in the Jacksonville game. After center Mitch Morse suffered a concussion against New England, Duvernay-Tardif’s replacement at guard, Jordan Devey, moved over a spot. Then, he promptly tore a pectoral muscle against the Bengals.
With Morse still out against the Broncos, Kansas City will start Andrew Wylie at right guard and Austin Reiter at center. Between them, they have a total of two NFL starts, and Wylie’s first came last week. Reiter wasn’t even on the Chiefs roster to begin the season (he was claimed him off waivers from Cleveland in September).
Despite the offensive line shuffling, Kansas City has begun to get Kareem Hunt on track. The second-year runner has totaled 374 rushing yards and caught 14 passes in the last four contests, bringing him back closer to his expected Pro Bowl level. It helps that he can do this.
Wolfe can rush the passer, but his and Peko’s primary responsibility is to get a push against the opposing offensive line and free up Von Miller. They’re effective enough at their jobs that Miller already has 7.5 sacks on the season.
The All-Pro linebacker and his rookie counterpart, Bradley Chubb (6.5 sacks), are a handful. Running the ball effectively is one way to keep the duo from just flying at Mahomes as fast as they can.
The Chiefs need their two new, unproven starters to hold up well enough for Andy Reid‘s offense to work its magic. Denver’s best chance at an upset is if the pair falter. But, hey, no pressure.