ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- When Peyton Manning exited the building, the Chiefs entered the side door and took their seat on the throne. Of all the notable differences in the Broncos since the quarterback's retirement, perhaps nothing reflects his absence more than seismic change in the AFC West.
With Manning under center, the Broncos dominated the division. Since his departure, the Broncos have not won a division road game. What's more, the Chiefs have become who the Broncos used to be. They have won 17 of their last AFC West contests, including five straight against Denver.
So it has to come to this: the Broncos enter Monday as an underdog at home against Kansas City for the second time in 27 years. The Chiefs are favored by 5 points on most boards. For the Broncos to return to the playoffs for the first time since Super Bowl 50, this game represents an important rung in the climb back to relevance.
"We have to reset now. The Baltimore game is over. We can't sit around and sulk about it. We should have won. That's a game we should have won," defensive end Derek Wolfe told Denver7. "When you are winning like we were the last two weeks, some of the stuff that's going wrong gets swept under the rug. Obviously, we have something to clean up."
The Broncos face a Chiefs team that looks a lot like when Manning was under center. Second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the godson of former Rockies reliever LaTroy Hawkins, has thrown an NFL record 13 touchdowns in the first three games, eclipsing Manning's mark. He has yet to throw an interception.
"We understand why they are favored," coach Vance Joseph said. "But that doesn't matter."
This is chilling for a Broncos defense that has allowed quarterbacks to complete 69.5 percent of their passes, ranking eighth worst. The heat on defensive coordinator Joe Woods has grown to a simmer. In consecutive weeks, his game plans have been questioned, first by coach Vance Joseph and last week by cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who said easy looks have left quarterbacks knowing "exactly where to throw the ball."
How will Woods respond? And how much will Joseph be involved in the play-calling? Joseph admits playing a part in the planning, but it's not uncommon for head coaches to take over on game day when things get sideways. And let's be honest, Joseph operates with little margin for error after a 5-11 debut.
The Broncos' defense needs to find a way to generate pressure up the middle to make Mahomes uncomfortable. That calls for more blitzing than Denver has employed the first three weeks.
Offensively, the Broncos must find a way to score while winning the time of possession battle. When looking back at teams that gave Manning issues during his first three years in Denver, there was a common thread: keep him off the field. The challenge is daunting. Case Keenum is tied for the league-high with five interceptions. At one point against the Ravens, Keenum looked dazed after the hit that led to the fumble and subsequent Phillip Lindsay ejection (there's a chance Lindsay could be suspended, but it's unlikely).
The Broncos have seven three-and-out drives the past two games, and punted on seven consecutive possessions at Baltimore. With 30 points likely necessary to upset the Chiefs, such clumsiness will spell doom on Monday.
Still, the Broncos are at home. They know the stakes. The sense of urgency is real. And according to BetDSI, the last time the Broncos were underdogs against the Chiefs at home, they won 19-16 on Oct. 20, 1991.
So I am saying they have a chance.