DENVER — The Broncos recognize the magnitude of Thursday's game. Beat the Chiefs and hope exists. Beat the Chiefs and the preseason goals come back into focus. Beat the Chiefs and Denver returns to AFC West relevance for the first time since late in the 2016 season.
There’s no pretending or denying that this is just another game – a nameless, faceless opponent. The Broncos know better. The Chiefs are the measuring stick. While Denver fans can mock Kansas City’s lack of postseason success – the Chiefs' last Super Bowl win and appearance came in 1970 – the Chiefs have turned this rivalry upside down.
After the Broncos won seven of eight games with Peyton Manning under center, Kansas City has reeled off seven straight wins, including four consecutive in Denver. The suddenly-relevant Broncos see an opportunity to snap the skid tonight, facing a compromised Chiefs team dealing with absences of Eric Fisher, Sammy Watkins and Chris Jones.
My Denver7 keys to victory:
The cheat code to conquer the Chiefs remains transparent. Kansas City cannot stop the run. They allow 161.8. yards per game on the ground, and 5.16 yards per attempt. Running serves two purposes – it’s effective and eats the clock. Mahomes had the ball for less than six minutes in the second half last week in a loss to the Texans.
Commit to running
It’s not enough to run. The Broncos must stay focused on it. They are a running team. It is their identity. Opponents have averaged 31 carries against Kansas City. The Broncos need to eclipse that number to win. Phillip Lindsay is the key, though Royce Freeman has been low-key solid. When Lindsay rushes for 100 yards, the Broncos are 4-0.
Game of Chance
If the Broncos achieve success on the ground, play action crystallizes. Denver must take care of the ball. But the Broncos must take chances. On paper, the Broncos don’t have enough to do what the Texans and Colts pulled off. They will if Joe Flacco hits Noah Fant on a seam route, Courtland Sutton down the sideline or Emmanuel Sanders on the post. Sanders will play tonight, but right tackle Ja'Wuan James is now on track to return vs. the Colts.
Turn it over
The Broncos found the secret sauce to their defense: takeaways. Coach Vic Fangio’s last unit in Chicago led the league. Denver has five takeaways the past two games. Kansas City has 10 this season. The Broncos have lost only three games since 2012 when winning the turnover battle.
Patrick Mahomes sits squarely in the MVP conversation after winning the trophy last year. He boasts 14 touchdowns with one interception. No one disputes his greatness. However, his sprained ankle has become an issue in the past two losses. He’s not as mobile right now. The Chiefs have allowed eight sacks in six games. The key is pressure, quarterback hits, forcing throws from the pocket. And when Mahomes goes off schedule, keep it to a big gain, not a score to Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce, who has caught a touchdown against Denver in four straight games and has 762 yards against the Broncos, his most against any opponent.
Better than average Joe
Flacco admits playing against the league’s best appeals to his ego. How could he not take it personally? Flacco is a Super Bowl MVP, and is regarded as an afterthought in this matchup. He managed the game in the past two wins. He must be better. The Broncos can live with 180 yards passing, but he needs to help Denver win on third down. The Broncos rank 25th at 33.3 percent. The Chiefs sit fifth at 48.4. Split the difference. The Boncos need to convert 40% of their third downs with the Chiefs a tick worse. That means Flacco needs a first-down scramble and an extended passing play to move the chains.
Big play day
Mahomes boasts 30 completions of 20-plus yards, nine of which have gone for scores. The Broncos, by comparison, own 19 and two. The Chiefs, though, have allowed 26 runs of 10-plus yards. The Broncos must counter the Chiefs’ big passing plays – of course there will be one to Tyreek Hill – with chunks in the ground game. Denver has not allowed an offensive touchdown in the past two games. The defense needs its best effort to pull off this upset.
Denver’s special teams delivered last week with Diontae Spencer’s 42-yard punt return and Brandon McManus’ best performance of the year. Denver needs a takeaway or Spencer to create a short field for an easy score. Any slip from the special teams group, and Denver, a team with no margin for error, loses.
This feels like a reverse-lock theory game. Roughly 80% of the gambling action was tilting toward the Chiefs on Thursday morning. They should win. They are the favorite. They need the game. But something about this night, this streak feels different. Against logic, my pick:
Renck prediction: Broncos 24, Chiefs 23.