3TFO Broncos @ Chiefs, Week 12
Before the season started, the AFC West appeared to be a place of parity, but the Denver Broncos have taken full control of the division. Of course, we didn’t know that quarterback Peyton Manning wouldn’t miss a beat after not taking a snap last year, and his hall of fame play combined with an emerging defense has the Broncos surging in the AFC.
On the other side, we’re running out of ways to express our disappointment in the Kansas City Chiefs. They were expected to compete for the division crown, but perhaps we overstated their talented roster that appeared to lack only consistent quarterback play. Instead, the whole team has underachieved and speculation has begun about bringing in new faces from the general manager to the head coach down to the quarterback.
As always, beware of the division battles that appear lopsided. Often times, ‘playing for pride’ is enough to boost last place teams to raise their game against division rivals, but the surging Broncos should be able to handle a Chiefs team that has played bad football since the first week of the season.
Regardless of records, there is still talent on both sides and here are three key matchups to watch.
Broncos Running Backs vs. Chiefs Linebackers
With starting running back Willis McGahee injured, Denver will look to a committee approach to replace his production. Of course it’s Manning’s team, but McGahee is quietly having a good season with 731 yards and an elusive rating of 23.3 that ranks 12th in the league. The Broncos are likely to turn to RBs Ronnie Hillman, Lance Ball, and perhaps even Knowshon Moreno to pick up the slack. Both Hillman and Ball have averaged an identical 3.8 yards per carry in their limited time this season, while Moreno has not taken a snap since Week 2. Hillman is viewed as the more explosive option, and the usual rookie concerns about pass protection have not been an issue to this point as he has yet to allow any pressures on his 19 pass-block attempts this season. That may be enough to keep him on the field for significant snaps.
In Kansas City, the once stout defensive line has struggled against the run this season, but the linebackers have picked up the slack. Inside linebackers Derrick Johnson and Jovan Belcher rank third (15.2%) and ninth (11.0%) respectively in run stop percentage as they’ve been able to make an impact despite the poor play up front. On the outside, LBs Justin Houston (5.9%) and Tamba Hali (5.7%) have done more than rush the passer as they rank 12th and 13th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers. The Chiefs linebacking unit has been one of the few strengths for them this season.
Von Miller vs. Eric Winston
Lost amid the (warranted) defensive player of the year hype that Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt has received, Broncos OLB Von Miller has put together an outstanding campaign. His recent play may have vaulted him into the conversation with Watt as he’s now grading at +60.1 on the season. His Pass Rush Productivity (PRP) of 16.5 is best in the league among all players with at least 100 pass rush snaps, regardless of position. He’s also without peer in the running game as his +28.0 run grade is nearly four times better than the next closest 4-3 outside linebacker. We may look back at the 2011 draft class as one of the best ever for defensive talent, and Miller and Watt are leading the way.
With Miller doing the majority of his rushing from the left side, he’ll go up against one of the better right tackles in the league in Eric Winston. He’s 25th in the league in Pass Blocking Efficiency at 95.3 while grading at +5.2 as a run blocker. Winston has been a good free agent addition that has made the Chiefs one of the better offensive lines in the league. He’ll be charged with cooling a red hot Miller who has graded at +18.9 in the past two games alone.
Broncos Cornerbacks vs. Chiefs Wide Receivers
The Broncos current five-game winning streak has coincided with strong play from their cornerbacks, particularly the emergence of Chris Harris and Tony Carter. Champ Bailey has continued his stout play, but it’s Harris and Carter who could have a huge hand in a potential playoff run. Bailey ranks 13th in the league with 0.93 yards/coverage snap, but Harris and Carter have even exceeded that number at 0.92 and 0.83 respectively. Denver is the only team to feature multiple players in the Top 13, putting the trio of cornerbacks as one of the best in the league.
Despite uneven quarterback play, the Chiefs feature a few weapons in the passing game. WR Dwayne Bowe is tied for 23rd in yards per pass route at 1.84, while Dexter McCluster is fifth in the league catching 73% of the balls thrown his way in the slot. They have both been hurt by drops this season, but Bowe’s physicality and McCluster’s shiftiness make for difficult covers. Assuming Chiefs’ quarterbacks can get them the ball, it should be a good battle between the Kansas City wide receivers and Denver cornerbacks.
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