8:25 PM EST, NBC – Line: Denver -3.5, over/Under: 39.5
What better way to end a lovely Thanksgiving Weekend than with a defensive slugfest featuring two division rivals chasing First Place? That’s precisely what we have on tap tonight from Sports Authority Field at Mile High, as the Denver Broncos host the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday Night Football. Emerging rested from their Bye Week, the Broncos (7-3, T-2nd in AFC West) look to break the deadlock between they and the Chiefs, as both teams currently stand one game behind the Oakland Raiders atop the AFC West. Gary Kubiak and his Staff hope to see the return of a number of helpful hands tonight, as Defensive Backs Aqib Talib (Back) and T.J. Ward (Hamstring) are both listed as Questionable, while Defensive End Derek Wolfe (Elbow) has been pronounced as Probable after dealing with respective injuries. Of course, this is just a case of the rich getting richer, as Denver’s Defense has continued to play at a very high level even without their services. Indeed, this group needs no introduction, allowing 18.9 points (8th Overall) on 318.0 Total Yards (4th Overall), while forcing twenty turnovers (2nd Overall) and racking up twenty-eight sacks (5th Overall). Talib and Ward’s return only figures to enhance what has been the stingiest Pass Defense in the league; the Broncos have relinquished just 194.3 yards through the air (2nd Overall) on a league-best 5.2 Net Yards per Attempt. Furthermore, they’ve intercepted more passes (ten) than they’ve allowed touchdowns (nine). Pressure has had a lot to do with the success of these ballhawks, as eleven different Broncos have dropped the opposing Quarterback for a loss, led by none other than Super Bowl XLX MVP Von Miller (9.5 SK, 1 FF). Wolfe is next on the list with 4.5 sacks, so getting him back on the field to help complement Miller should be huge. However, as good as they’ve been against the pass, this unit has been hardly as staunch in defending the run, which is a major difference from how they performed in the 2015. Last season, Denver allowed the third-fewest rushing yards (83.6) on a league-low 3.3 yards per carry. Fast forward to 2016 and you’ll fid a very different story, as Kubiak has seen this group regress mightily, yielding 123.7 yards on the ground (29th Overall) on 4.4 yards per carry (24th Overall). While there have been plenty of times this season in which they’ve snuffed out the run, relegating their opponents below 100 yards four times, they’ve been gashed for at least 120 yards on six occasions, including a 218-yard debacle against division-leading Oakland. This is certainly something that bears watching against the Chiefs, whose conservative approach (more on that in a bit), is sure to test them in this particular phase of the game. However, they’ve had just as much trouble thus far rushing the ball themselves, which has always been a staple of Kubiak’s teams in the past. The Broncos have averaged just 97.4 yards on the ground (23rd Overall) on just 3.7 yards per carry (27th Overall), failing to surpass eve ninety yards rushing in six of their last eight contests. While the Offensive Line has experienced the requisite bumps and bruises, a completely unsettled Backfield has not helped matters at all, as leading rusher C.J. Anderson (437 yards, 4 TD) has found himself on Injured Reserve, with Rookie Devontae Booker (396 yards, 2 TD) left to pick up the pieces. Without the benefit of a consistent rushing attack, Kubiak’s Offense can become derailed, which has had an adverse effect on Quarterback Trevor Siemian (60.1%, 2,028 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT). The unheralded Sophomore from Northwestern has had his moments this season, but has begun to tail off over the last three outings, throwing as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns. The issue has been without a running game to lean on, he’s had to throw the ball far more than Kubiak would like, attempting thirty-eight, thirty-seven, and forty passes in those contests. Indeed, LESS is more in regards to this kid; through the first four games of the campaign, Siemian connected on 67.3% of his passes, while averaging 25.3 attempts, but in the five games since he’s seen that figure drop exponentially, completing just 56.3% of his attempts, while averaging 38.0 attempts per game.
Meanwhile, the ever so subtle juggernaut that is the Chiefs (7-3, T-2nd in AFC West) came to a screeching halt last weekend at arrowhead Stadium, in the form of Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who snapped their current five-game winning streak, and in the process dealt them their first loss at home since October 11th… of 2015. It was a sluggish day for the home side, who were felled by a quartet of Roberto Aguayo Field Goals en route to a 19-17 defeat. Andy Reid’s charges struggled to get much of anything going offensively, at least until it was too late as a 13-play, 78-yard drive ending with a 3-yard touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Albert Wilson cut the deficit to two points. However, as was the case all day, Kansas City simply couldn’t get the visitors off the field; the Bucs gained possession just outside of the Two Minute Warning, and managed to bleed the clock all the way down to twenty-two seconds remaining before punting the ball back to the hosts, who attempted one last lateral-infested miracle that unsurprisingly fell short. All in all, Tampa Bay possessed the ball for a decisive 35:18, amassing 442 Total Yards and twenty-seven First Downs, while converting on 11-of-16 Third Downs. Well, anyone that’s watched these guys play will tell you that losing Time of Possession along with Turnover Differential (they committed two last Sunday) is NOT a recipe for success in Kansas City. Simply put, this team is built to grind out victories, which at times can be unappealing to watch, as they’ve compromised explosiveness for efficiency. Just look at the numbers offensively; the Chiefs have averaged 22.2 points (19th Overall) on just 346.6 Total Yards (24th Overall), including 248.7 yards through the air (22nd Overall) on 6.2 Net Yards per Attempt (19th Overall), and another 97.9 yards on the ground (22nd Overall) on 4.1 yards per carry (20th Overall). Yes, Reid has long been characterized as a conservative Play-Caller, and Alex Smith (67.2%, 2,077 yards, 9 TD, 4 INT) has been maligned throughout his career as a Game Manager, but the real issue here, folks, is that this team simply lacks playmakers at the skill positions. Once upon a time, their rushing attack was one of the most productive (and explosive) in the league, led by Jamaal Charles, the four-time Pro Bowl Tailback who’s racked up a career 7,260 rushing yards and forty-three scores on a staggering 5.5 yards per carry. However, age and injuries have caught up with him, as Charles has looked like a shell of himself since returning from an ACL tear suffered last season; relegated to spot duty in 2016, he appeared in just three games carrying the ball twelve times for forty yards and a touchdown, averaging a miserable 3.3 yards per carry, by far and away the lowest such figure of his career, before heading to Injured Reserve following yet another knee surgery. As a result, Reid has had to resort to a committee-like approach, with both Spencer Ware (641 yards 2 TD) and Charcandrick West (183 yards) carrying the load in the Backfield, while also factoring heavily into the passing game, as each player has hauled in twenty-two receptions. So with all that said, how the heck are these guys just a game out of First in the crowded AFC West, you ask? Two words, folks: Turnover Differential. Kansas City has committed just ten turnovers thus far (10th Overall), while logging a league-best twenty-three takeaways for a stellar Plus-13 Differential. This has helped the Offense out immensely, granting them advantageous Field Position, on average starting from their own 30.1- Yard Line, seventh-best in the NFL. Defensive Backs Marcus Peters (5 INT, 15 PD, 1 FF, 3 FR) and Eric Berry (2 INT, 7 PD, 1 TD) are shoe-ins for the Pro Bowl, while Dee Ford (10 SK, 1 FF) has emerged into a formidable Edge Rusher in the absence of Justin Houston who was activated from the Injured Reserve two weeks ago. Just ask Carolina how important Turnover Differential can be, as they rode a Plus-23 advantage all the way to the Super Bowl last season.
Predicted Outcome: Broncos 16, Chiefs 12