8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: Chiefs -3.5, Over/Under: 49
Bitter Division Rivals clash on a short week, as the Denver Broncos play host to the Kansas City Chiefs, from Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. Momentum can swing quickly in the NFL, and that’s the case for both of these teams, though we’ll start with the Chiefs (4-2, 1st in AFC West), who after an explosive 4-0 start have suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time since December of 2017. So what’s going in Kansas City, you ask? Well, it’s really a case of two separate issues that have been plaguing Andy Reid’s charges over the past few weeks, with the first being a sudden swath of injuries that have run through the roster. Heading into last Sunday’s 24-31 defeat at home to the Houston Texans, the club was already without Left Tackle, Eric Fisher (Groin), along with fellow Tackle, Andrew Wylie (Ankle), and Pro-Bowl Receiver, Tyreek Hill (7 REC, 96 YDS, 13.7 Y/R, 2 TD), who finally made his return after missing the previous four games with a nagging shoulder injury. Of course, reigning MVP Quarterback, Patrick Mahomes (63.9%, 2,104 YDS, 8.55 NY/A, 14 TD, 1 INT, 79.9 QBR) had been nursing a tender ankle sprain suffered a week prior in a 13-19 loss to the Indianapolis Colts, which limited him throughout the week in practice, while clearly hindering him over the weekend. For the second consecutive week, the third-year Signal-Caller wasn’t quite himself, completing just 19-of-35 Passes for 273 Yards, Three Touchdowns and an Interception, while also losing a crucial Fumble off a Sack. After averaging 33.8 Points on a staggering 474.8 Total Yards through their first four contests, the Chiefs have mustered just 18.5 Points on dramatically reduced 316.5 Total Yards, including a season-low 309 against the Texans. Sure, Mahomes struck gold downfield on a number of occasions, particularly on a 46-Yard Touchdown to the aforementioned Hill on their opening drive, but the overall attack lacked consistency and rhythm for the second consecutive week. Then again, it’s difficult to get into any semblance of a rhythm when you’re watching the bulk of the game from the sideline, which is once again what happened at Arrowhead Stadium last Sunday. A week after the Colts dominated Time of Possession (37:15) by rushing for 180 Yards on Forty-Five Carries, the Texans stormed into Kansas City with a similar Game Plan, rushing for 192 Yards on Forty-One Carries en route to possessing the football for a total of 39:48. And thus the blueprint for neutralizing this prolific attack has been created, for in these two losses, the reigning AFC West champions have seen their Offense on the field for a scant 22:45 and 20:12 respectively. This is where the disappointment must be setting in for the Coaching Staff, particularly new Defensive Coordinator, Steve Spagnuolo, who was hired in the Offseason with the explicit mandate of fixing a porous Defense that bottomed out in 2018, and ultimately kept the team from advancing to their first Super Bowl since 1969. It was clear from the jump that this was going to be quite a process, with Spagnuolo looking to transition this unit from the base 3-4 Defensive Front that they had been running for nearly a decade, to a 4-3 Front predicated more so on Zone Blitzes. In an effort to hasten the transition, Management was very active in the Offseason, acquiring the likes of Defensive End, Frank Clark (12 TKL, 3 TFL, 3 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD), versatile Defensive Back, Tyrann Mathieu (29 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 5 PD), and rangy Linebacker, Darron Lee (22 TKL), though while each of those players is a natural fit for their position within the scheme, it hasn’t translated to the desired improvement. Thus far, the Chiefs are yielding a dismal 406.1 Total Yards per Game (28th Overall), while getting absolutely whipped up front, where the opposition has gashed them for 161.8 Rushing Yards (30th Overall) on 5.2 Yards per Carry (30th Overall). Furthermore, their inability to stop the run has become the league’s worst kept secret, with their opponents rushing for an average of 190.3 Yards over the pas four games. As a result, no team has seen their opponents’ drives last longer against them, with their counterparts averaging 3:13 per Drive (32nd Overall). Perhaps a meeting with the Broncos will do the trick for not just the Defense, but the team as a whole; Kansas City has won seven consecutive games against Denver dating back to 2015, with four of those contests serving as a primetime matchup. In their two encounters last season, Mahomes completed 65.8% of his attempts for an average of 303.5 Yards 7.5 Net Yards per Attempt, with Five Touchdowns and an Interception, while rushing for another score.
Meanwhile, after getting off to a very disappointing start, the Broncos (2-4, 3rd in AFC West) appear to be turning things around, winning back-o-back games after dropping each of their first four. Denver surprised many in the Offseason when they decided to replace the incumbent Vance Joseph, a former Defensive Coordinator with no Head Coaching Experience, with Vic Fangio, yet another venerable Defensive Play-Caller possessing zero experience running the show. The only difference between the two individuals was, well, experience; at the time of his appointment, Joseph was just 45-Years Old, while the elder Fangio had to wait quite a while before finally getting the call, having recently celebrated his sixty-first birthday back in late August. Of course, the longtime Defensive Coordinator has been one of the best at his profession for a good long minute now, overseeing some of the league’s staunchest units, including the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2014, and most recently the Chicago Bears from 2015 to 2018, the last of which they ranked tops in the NFL in Points Allowed and Takeaways. Given the quality of talent on this particular side of the football upon his arrival in Mile High, expectations were high that he would continue the defensive excellence that the franchise has carried since winning Super Bowl L back in 2015. However, the transition hasn’t been as seamless as one would think; despite in the Top-10 in both Points Allowed (17.7) and Total Defense (307.8), the Run Defense has been shaky (111.8 Y/G, 4.3 Y/C), while the group has amassed just Six Takeaways (24th Overall), though the most damning statistic has to be the lack of pressure that they’ve applied, managing just Twelve Sacks (22nd Overall). In fact, Denver went the first four games of the year without registering a single Sack, which is rather remarkable when you consider the presence of three-time All-Pro Edge-Rusher, Von Miller (20 TKL, 2 TFL, 7 QBH, 2.5 SK), and Sophomore Defensive End, Bradley Chubb (21 TKL, 5 TFL, 6 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 PD), who last season combined for 26.5 Sacks. Unfortunately, the latter tore his ACL in a narrow 24-26 loss at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars, though since that defeat, things have begun to turn around for the Broncos. In back-to-back wins over the Los Angeles Chargers (20-13) and most recently the Tennessee Titans (16-0), the Defense has really settled into their new scheme, allowing an average of 225.0 Total Yards, while completely snuffing out the run, relegating both teams below Forty Yards on the ground. They’ve also logged Six Takeaways during that span, after failing to turn over their opponent in any of their first four outings, including three in the aforementioned win over the Titans. Though neither team did much to distinguish themselves on the offensive side of the football, Denver’s D was definitely on their A-Game, permitting just 204 Total Yards on Twelve First Downs, 2-of-14 on Third Down, and 0-of-2 on 4th Down, while piling up Seven Sacks, forcing the visitors to bench their Quarterback, Marcus Mariota. With the Defense firing on all cylinders once again, the glacial acclimation of Joe Flacco (66.3%, 1,435 YDS, 6.26 NY/A, 6 TD, 5 INT, 56.5 QBR) to the Offense has been far more bearable. The club traded for veteran Quarterback once he was made available following eleven mostly successful years in Baltimore, culminating in Super Bowl glory in 2012, with the intention of bringing some sorely-needed consistency to the position. While he’s far from a long-term solution, the 34-Year Old may have enough left in the tank to serve as a bridge to his likely successor, Drew Lock, whom the team selected No. 42 Overall in the NFL Draft. In the present, this unit remains a considerable ways behind the Defense in terms of coming together, thanks in large part to an Offensive Line that continues to struggle in Pass-Protection. Thus far, the Broncos have ranked towards the bottom of the league in a number of categories, including Points Scored (17.7, 26th Overall), Total Yards (355.2, 25th Overall), Passing Offense (239.2, 23rd Overall), Net Yards per Attempt (6.26, 19th Overall), Third Down Percentage (33.3%, 25th Overall), and Red Zone Percentage (47.1%, 25th Overall). Sophomore Tailbacks Phillip Lindsay (84 CAR, 397 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 4 TD) and Royce Freeman (66 CAR, 284 YDS, 4.3 Y/C, 0 TD) have combined for a solid Rushing Attack (116.0, 15th Overall), but the Passing Game has been extremely slow to take flight.