This is the ultimate crossroads game for both teams. The 7-3 Denver Broncos and 7-3 Kansas City Chiefs are tied for second place in the AFC West, a full game behind the Oakland Raiders.
Neither the Broncos or Chiefs run the ball all that well, or stop the run. Both the Broncos and Chiefs have quarterbacks in Trevor Siemian and Alex Smith, respectively, who tend to quickly throw the short pass rather than force the mid-range completion.
And both teams are strong on defense with Denver ranked No. 4 in yards allowed and the Chiefs ranked No. 5 in points allowed.
The winner of the Sunday night game on NBC can start making playoff plans. The loser will be in third place and likely forced to battle to the final week for a wild-card spot.
Here are 9 keys for the Broncos to prevail:
1. Protect the ball
The Chiefs lead the NFL with 23 takeaways. And the last time these two teams met, a year ago in this same Denver stadium, four Kansas City interceptions of a wounded Peyton Manning were the difference in a 29-13 Chiefs win.
2. Create the turnover
The Denver D is second in the NFL with 20 takeaways. Broncos safety Darian Stewart was a takeaway machine in their previous game at New Orleans. He has since been rewarded with a $7 million a year contract. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has only thrown 4 interceptions this year so it will be up to Broncos' pass rusher Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware to force him into mistakes.
3. Don’t get Justin Houston started
The Chiefs don’t have Dee Ford, who is tied for the NFL lead with 10.0 sacks but is out with a strained hamstring. Houston is the Chiefs’ best pass rusher but he is just now coming back from a knee injury. He hasn’t had a sack since he had 2.0 in that Chiefs’ win here last November. Broncos’ right tackles tend to help opposing pass rusher get going (see Atlanta’s Vic Beasley Jr.) Ty Sambrailo and Donald Stephenson will rotate in an attempt to stop Houston tonight.
4. Stop Spencer Ware
Kansas City’s Spencer Ware is a pretty good running back. His 4.9 yards per carry ranks fifth in the NFL among backs with at least 130 carries. The Broncos’ defense isn’t very good in stopping the run as it ranks No. 29 in the league with 123.7 yards per game.
5. Unleash Wolfe and Aqib
Although the Broncos went 2-1 while cornerback Aqib Talib was out the previous three games with a back injury, and although they won their only game played without Talib and defensive end Derek Wolfe, Denver’s D is far more dynamic with them playing.
Those two stars will be a little more fired up than usual for this game and perhaps that emotion can lead to inspired performances.
6. Play big, Trevor Siemian
Although Broncos’ first-year starting quarterback Trevor Siemian is 7-2 through his first 9 NFL starts, head coach Gary Kubiak wants more. Siemian might be able to do more if he can get rid of the ball tad quicker than he has been.
7. Booker and Bibbs
The Broncos tried, unsuccessfully, to claim former back Ronnie Hillman off waivers this week. Perhaps, the claim will motive the Broncos’ kid rushers of Devontae Booker and Kapri Bibbs into running for their jobs tonight against a Chiefs defense that only ranks 27th in stopping the run on 121.7 yards per game.
8. Halt punt returner Tyreek Hill
The Chiefs have the league’s No. 1 punt returner in Hill, who is averaging 23.3 yards a return. The combination of Broncos punter Riley Dixon and gunner Kayvon Webster will be big in stopping Hill – not to mention an offensive performance that doesn’t often punt.
9. Keep making ‘em, McManus
These two teams are 20- to 23-point offenses. When positive possessions are hard to come by, field goals are key and both teams have good kickers. The Chiefs’ Cairo Santos has converted 23 of 26 field goals and the Broncos’ Brandon McManus is 21 of 24.