DENVER -- The playoffs begin in January. Unless you ask the Broncos. At 7-3, they believe the postseason begins Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs.
They are wrong, yet they are right. Any chance of winning the AFC West starts with a home victory in prime time. Lose to Kansas City, and the Broncos would be 1-3 in the division with a road game remaining at Kansas City. It doesn't take dots to connect that scenario to misery. Claim a win Sunday, and everything stays within grasp: the division, a top playoff seed and a bye.
Let's remember, the Broncos have to reach the postseason, and a defeat tonight puts them in a scrambled mess of contenders. This is not media-driven hype. The players understand what remains at stake.
"This is like a playoff game," said defensive end Derek Wolfe, who returns tonight after missing the Saints game with a hairline fracture in his right elbow. "The next six weeks are playoffs. We know how good we can be."
Let's take a look at my Take 5 Keys to a Broncos victory:
1) No Turnovers. Be on red alert in red zone
The Chiefs show elasticity. They will give up yards. Then their jaws drop in the red zone. They entered this week with seven takeaways in the red zone. The next closest team is Buffalo with three. "They don't give you any cushion," quarterback Trevor Siemian said. It would hurt the Broncos to settle for field goals. But it would hurt even more if they don't score any points. The Chiefs are 6-0 this season when win turnover battle.
2) Establish the tone
The Broncos have yet to lose this season when they score in the first quarter. They don't do it often. With Arizona playing well in the first today, the Broncos begin tonight as the worst first quarter team in the NFL. Scoring early changes everything. It allows Denver to stay committed to the run, and forces opponents to pass more, which is the Broncos' strength.
3) Stop the run
The Chiefs love to win ugly. They would like nothing more than to run the ball down Denver's throat. It neutralizes the crowd and gorges the clock. It represents an interesting matchup. The Broncos have struggled against the run, allowing 123.7 yards per game. The Chiefs don't run well, averaging 97.9 yards, 11th worst. "It is a mentality," outside linebacker Shane Ray said. "We must deny them." The return of Wolfe, even on a limited play count, should help.
4) Establish an identity on the ground
Denver can't be this mediocre on the ground. The Broncos found their stride at this point last year when Brock Osweiler went under center. The big change this season is switching out the right tackles, Ty Sambrailo for Donald Stephenson. Also, Devontae Booker must break more tackles. He knows it. This line isn't suddenly going to look like the Cowboys. The backs have to make opponents miss on arm tackles.
5) Win in special teams
Down the stretch a year ago, Brandon McManus and Britton Colquitt were arguably Denver's best offensive players. Colquitt is gone. McManus, after an uneven start, is beginning to heat up. Punter Riley Dixon has been mediocre with flashes of brilliance. With the weather turning to a chill, field position becomes even more important. And remember the Broncos signed a new longsnapper this week in Thomas Gafford. Any miscue in this area could cost Denver a victory, heightening anxiety close to panic levels.