It’s always a little quirky when the NFL gives us the same matchup in two out of three weeks, but that’s just what happened when the Denver Broncos traveled to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs with AFC supremacy on the line. The Chiefs jumped out to a 21-7 lead, but Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning found his deep-ball groove and torched the Kansas City secondary for 403 yards and five touchdowns through the air.
After Denver turned the tables to go up 35-21, Kansas City came back strong with a touchdown to get within one score, but their comeback attempt fell short as free safety Mike Adams stepped in front of an Alex Smith pass in the end zone on 4th-and-4 with 1:51 to go in the game to seal the win for the Broncos. At 10-2, they control their own destiny the rest of the way as the AFC’s No. 1 seed if completely in their control, while the Chiefs fall to 9-3 after a 9-0 start. While a playoff bid appears to be in the cards, they need to regain some momentum as they jockey with the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals for playoff position.
Here’s a look at the key performances from this AFC West showdown.
Denver – Three Performances of Note
Manning-to-Decker Wins the Day
Despite the gaudy statistics he’s posting this season, Manning had taken a step back in recent weeks, grading at -0.1 over his last six games after grading at +22.0 in his first five. Make no mistake, it’s not to say that he’s lost it, but moreso that he’d taken a step back with regard to getting the ball down the field while the statistics remained status quo due to shorter passes and brilliant work after the catch from his talented group of skill position players. That said, he was back to form on Sunday, grading at +4.4 for the day including completing 5-of-6 deep passes for a ridiculous 212 yards and three touchdowns.
It was clear early on that wide receiver Eric Decker would be his favorite target for the afternoon and they hooked up eight times for 174 yards and four touchdowns. Their first big play came on the opening play of the second quarter as Decker got behind the defense on a post route and Manning hit him in stride for the 41-yard score. It was more of the same early in the third quarter, though this time it was more of a deep crossing route, but once again Manning put the ball right on Decker’s hands for a 37-yard touchdown. They connected on the very next series on a 15-yard post route for their third touchdown of the game with the final score coming on an end zone fade early in the fourth. It was the Manning-to-Decker Show throughout the afternoon as they carried the Broncos to victory.
Ihenacho Lost in All Phases
Broncos strong safety Duke Ihenacho emerged from training camp as the starter and early in the season he did a fine job of making an impact in the running game while holding his own in coverage, though he certainly found himself lost at times. Sunday was one of those days as Ihenacho graded at -5.8 overall with negative grades in all phases of the game. He missed three tackles on the day, including two in the fourth quarter as he twice failed to take down running back Jamaal Charles on the Chiefs’ 17-play touchdown drive. He was also responsible for prolonging the drive at the 6:37 mark of the fourth as his face mask penalty on WR Dexter McCluster negated a third down stop and set up a 1st-and-goal situation from the 1-yard line that led to an easy Charles touchdown. Ihenacho also found himself in coverage on the Chiefs’ first touchdown of the day as he failed to keep up with WR Junior Hemingway on his 17-yard score. Sunday was easily Ihenacho’s worst game as a pro.
Two-Headed Running Attack
After RB Knowshon Moreno sliced through the New England Patriots’ defense a week ago to the tune of 224 yards on the ground, it was easy to forget about rookie back RB Montee Ball who has quietly emerged as an efficient runner in his own right. As Moreno struggled to find room against Kansas City’s front, Ball had a breakout game picking up 117 yards on 13 carries to go with a +3.0 rushing grade. He showed an ability to make the first man miss, as he did on his 45-yard run at the 5:01 mark of the third quarter. He made linebacker Derrick Johnson whiff in the hole before bouncing off cornerback Sean Smith at the second level. He capped his career-day with a 28-yard run as the Broncos ran the clock out and Ball made sure to do it in style as he jolted safety Quintin Demps with a vicious stiff arm to put an emphatic end to Denver’s division sweep. Despite Moreno picking up only 18 yards on 15 carries, he’s certainly going to continue to get his touches, but Ball’s emergence just makes Denver’s offense that much more dangerous with an added option in the backfield.
Kansas City – Three Performances of Note
Smith up to the Challenge
Alex Smith: game manager. We’ve seen the label a number of times, and not necessarily unwarranted. The term is certainly less than glowing and it usually speaks to an inability to make big plays in the passing games rather than a special ability to avoid disastrous ones. Smith bucked the status quo in this game, grading at +3.3 overall while showing impressive accuracy on his downfield throws, though his receivers didn’t do him any favors with a number of drops and other passes that should have been caught.
Smith’s game didn’t start out well as he threw extremely late to a wide open tight end Anthony Fasano in the end zone with the result being an interception by LB Wesley Woodward rather than six points. He bounced back nicely, however, and once again showed that he can hold his own in a shootout if need be. Nothing summed up the afternoon better than his two throws in the middle of the third quarter. He hit WR A.J. Jenkins in stride on a corner route at the 6:08 mark of the quarter but the second-year receiver was unable to haul it in as he went to the ground. Smith bounced back with a similar throw two plays later, but this time it was Fasano who had the ball hit him in the hands on a post route only to drop it. Smith continued with his precision downfield throws on the Chiefs’ final drive as he hit McCluster on a 28-yard post with 2:45 to go in the game. Unfortunately for Kansas City, the comeback attempt fell short, but Smith has shown that he can handle himself in a shootout if need be and that bodes well as the Chiefs look to iron out some issues with their once-elite defense.
Manning didn’t discriminate: he picked on everyone Sunday. The entire secondary not named “Eric Berry” graded negatively with cornerbacks Marcus Cooper (-3.9), Brandon Flowers (-3.0), and Sean Smith (-2.2) taking the brunt of the punishment. Cooper gave up seven receptions on his 11 targets for 180 yards and two touchdowns. He lost right at the line of scrimmage on WR Demaryius Thomas’ 77-yard reception with 8:24 to go in the third quarter and he found himself in coverage on Decker’s third and fourth touchdowns. Cooper did benefit from Manning’s worst throw of the day – a poorly underthrown deep ball that had no chance of being completed – but even the interception wasn’t enough to salvage his day.
Flowers was only slightly better allowing 5-of-6 targets to be completed for 120 yards and two scores. He was in coverage on Decker’s first two scores as he was simply unable to run with him down the field on both plays. While Smith’s metrics are a bit cleaner (3-for-6 for 49 yards, 1 TD), he was the beneficiary of a Thomas dropped pass that would have gone for a first down and he was later the culprit of a pass interference penalty when trying to keep up with Thomas on a deep ball.
The Chiefs secondary clearly misses the top notch pass rush they were receiving in their first nine games.
Speaking of the pass rush, outside linebacker Justin Houston missed the game after going down to injury after only 29 snaps a week ago. While backup Frank Zombo did an admirable job filling in, the Chiefs clearly missed the presence of our top rated 3-4 outside linebacker, particularly in the pass rush department. Zombo held his own in the running game, grading at +1.7, but he only notched two pressures on his 27 pass rushes, good for a -0.4 grade. On the other side, OLB Tamba Hali wasn’t much better as he had only one pressure on his 37 rushes. The Chiefs certainly look like a different defense without two elite pass rushers coming off the edge and it shows in the numbers as Manning was pressured on only eight of his 42 drop-backs while passing for 395 yards and all five touchdowns when given a clean pocket.
– DT Malik Jackson played a career-high 58 snaps grading a +0.5. The second-year pro has now quietly graded positively in eight straight games.
– Smith lost 86 “air yards” on the Chiefs’ four dropped passes, the highest total in the league this week.
– While a +0.7 overall grade isn’t bad, Broncos OLB Von Miller continues to have a worst games against the Chiefs. It’s a growing trend.
PFF Game Ball
While it’s tough to separate Manning and Decker here, Manning is the engine that makes it all go and his +4.6 performance led the way.