ENGLEWOOD — The reversal spins heads. When Peyton Manning sat in the cockpit, the Broncos used the Chiefs as a chew toy. They topped them seven straight times, flexing on their AFC West rival as they stomped their way to four division crowns.
Then something weird happened. Manning retired. And the Broncos have not beaten the Chiefs since. Denver's last victory over Kansas City came on Sept. 17, 2015 at Arrowhead Stadium when Manning "raged, raged against the dying light" in a dramatic 31-24 victory. However, Manning played the worst game of his career two months later against the Chiefs, a foot injury forcing him to the sideline for six weeks before his triumphant Super Bowl 50 run.
So it is two ugly streaks exist: The Broncos have dropped seven straight overall to Kansas City and have not eclipsed them in Denver since Sept. 14, 2014.
To get where they want to go, the Broncos have to stand up to the Chiefs and reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes. Despite dealing with a sprained ankle this season, Mahomes has thrown for 2,104 yards, 14 touchdowns with one interception. Broncos coach Vic Fangio said Mahomes plays with "athletic arrogance," comparing him to John Elway and Aaron Rodgers. Mahomes leads the NFL in yards per attempt (9.1) and yards per completion (14.3).
"Patrick Mahomes is a weapon, and then you have (receivers) Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins and (tight end) Travis Kelce. They have a plethora of players on that team, so it comes down to winning your one-on-one matchups, making sure we get the quarterback on the ground, shut the run game down. You have to limit the big plays that they make. If you can limit their big plays,” said defensive end Derek Wolfe, before admitting, "If you’re going to compete in the AFC West you have to beat the Chiefs, so that’s what we have to do.”
The Broncos enter Thursday night a 3.5-point underdog, a respectable number and a nod to their suddenly suffocating defense. Denver has outscored its past two opponents 23-0 in the first halves, both wins. After the Jaguars humiliated them with 269 yards rushing, the Broncos have yielded 74 yards on 37 carries over the last two weeks. Leonard Fournette logged 81 on one play, speaking to the Broncos' staggering improvement.
"That last quarter-and-a-half against Jacksonville, that obviously was embarrassing to everybody involved," Fangio said. "We seemed to have done a better job against it of late.”
Denver's offense, meanwhile, has gone into a shell in second halves. Even quarterback Joe Flacco admitted the Broncos played to the score too much, recognizing there was no way Tennessee was reaching 10 points. A blueprint remains available to upset the Chiefs, who have dropped two straight, leaving coach Andy Reid grumpy on a Monday conference call.
The best defense against the Chiefs is a good offense. The Colts and Texans dominated time of possession in back-to-back road wins over Kansas City. Houston ran 83 plays to the Chiefs' 47, prompting a question Monday to Reid about his slumping defense which opponents are gashing for 161.8 yards per game on the ground, third most.
"I am not concerned," Reid said. "But we have to get off the field."
While the results in this rivalry have been lopsided the past seven games, the scores have not been. The Broncos have lost by an aggregate of 29-19, and been outscored by an average of six points in Denver.
But let's be real: close only matters in relationships and horseshoes. There are no participation ribbons in the NFL. The Broncos own a two-game winning streak. Win a third straight and two games in eight days -- including one against the class of the AFC West -- the view of this season changes dramatically.
"I think every game is a measuring stick. To your point, the Chiefs are the reigning champions in this division. I think (four) years running. So to some degree this is (more important)," Fangio said. "But every game is a measuring stick."
Fangio had no update on receiver Emmanuel Sanders' sore knee. The expectation, per sources, is that Sanders believes he will be able to play on Thursday. The Broncos might need a season-high in points to pull off the win, meaning Sanders' presence, if healthy, would be a boost. ... Fangio was also non-committal on whether right tackle Ja'Wuan James would start Thursday. He's been on that track for a few weeks, but the short turnaround creates additional hurdles. James played 10 snaps in the opening night loss at Oakland before spraining his left knee. ... The plan remains to start cornerback Davontae Harris a second straight week. He was forced into the lineup after Duke Dawson suffered a foot injury. … Injured reserve players Drew Lock (thumb), Theo Riddick (shoulder) and Jake Butt (knee) can begin practicing this week, but might not. The team will do mental reps more than physical ones. And once an IR player starts practicing a team must decide over the next two weeks whether to active him or keep him on the IR for the remainder of the season. As such, the practice for the aforementioned trio might begin next week.