ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —It's been more than seven years since the Broncos last knocked off the Chiefs.
On Sunday, they will look to change that — and to end a 13-game skid against their AFC West rival.
For Denver (3-9), a lot will need to change in order to come out on top against Kansas City (9-3), whichis on track to make its eighth-straight playoff appearance. But after falling short of their expectations for the season, the Broncos would still find great value in pulling off the upset.
"[The Chiefs are]a West opponent, and it's a great rivalry that's been going on for years," Head Coach Nathaniel Hackett said. "I'm very excited to be part of it. It's one of those things where we have to show that we can win to make it a better rivalry. That's the starting point. Regardless of what your record is, it is an important game and it's a West game. We'll take it that way. We've been in a lot of games, and we have to continually battle. It's going to be a great test for both sides of the ball."
The Chiefs are coming off a tight loss to the Bengals on the road, so they will undoubtedly look to rebound against a Broncos team looking for their third win at home. For Denver to hand Mahomes his first divisional road loss, quarterback Russell Wilson will likely needto delivera vintage performance.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can earn a win over the Chiefs:
CAN THE BRONCOS LIMIT PATRICK MAHOMES?
Quarterback Patrick Mahomes has previously made four Pro Bowls, earned MVP and Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2019 and been named the MVP of Super Bowl LIV. Somehow, he continues to get better.
In addition to top-tier arm strength, accuracy, decision making, coaching and playmakers at his disposal, what makes Mahomes so difficult to contain is his elusiveness. When faced with pressure, he can scramble out of the pocket and find open receivers while in motion. This makes him one of the hardest players to bring down, and he has been sacked on just 3.89 percent of pass attempts in his career — the lowest of any active quarterback.
"[The] best thing to do is contain him, keep him in the pocket," cornerback Pat Surtain II said. "That's the best thing to do. With a guy like that, he just knows how to make a bad play turn into a great play. He knows how to create second plays, utilizing his feet or his arms. He is a special type of quarterback."
Preventing Mahomes from scrambling, of course, is easier said than done — so the key to limiting Mahomes may not be to confine him to the pocket, but instead to take out his top receiver.
Tight end Travis Kelce has been Mahomes' clear No. 1 target this season, as his 968 receiving yards and 12 receiving touchdowns lead the team by a wide margin. In the Bengals' win over the Chiefs in Week 13, they used frequent double coverage to hold Kelce to just four receptions for 56 yards. If the Broncos' defensive backs can adopt a similar strategy and essentially take Kelce out of the game, it will force Mahomes to rely on other receivers.
"It's going to be a challenge to contain [Kelce]," Hackett said. "Our defense did a good job last week containing [Ravens TE Mark] Andrews, and it's going to be a challenge this week. Kelce is a dynamic pass receiver, and he can do some things in the run blocking. They use him and move him around — motion and do all kinds of things. We will have to be aware of him at all times, without a doubt."
WILL JERRY JEUDY IGNITE THE BRONCOS' PASSING GAME?
Denver's wide receivers have been battered by injuries throughout the season, and Sunday's matchup against the Chiefs will be no different. The Broncos' most productive receiver, Courtland Sutton, will miss his first game of the season after suffering a hamstring injury against the Ravens.
Luckily, Jerry Jeudy has returned to the lineup after missing nearly three games with an ankle injury. The third-year wide receiver recorded four receptions for 65 yards in Week 13 despite being on a limited snap count, and he could have a major impact against Kansas City if he has no limitations.
"For Jerry, coming back and not being able to practice, I think he did a great job," Offensive Coordinator Justin Outten said Thursday. "I think Friday was his first full-speed day, so going into it on Sunday I think he played fast, he was a vertical threat for us; he did a great job. I think [Wide Receivers Coach Zach] Azzanni did a really good job as far as monitoring his reps and using him when we needed it."
Without Sutton in the lineup, Jeudy will have to take on a larger responsibility in the Broncos' passing game. He has only exceeded 100 receiving yards once this season, but Denver will need another strong performance from him in order to keep up with the Chiefs' electric offense.
While the Broncos have had difficulty consistently finding the end zone this season, Jeudy has been the team's most productive scorer, recording three touchdowns in 10 games. The Chiefs share the league lead for the most passing touchdowns allowed this season, so they should provide Jeudy a great opportunity to end Denver's end-zone woes.
If Jeudy can put on a show against the Chiefs' secondary, it could be the difference-maker in this matchup.
CAN DENVER'S OFFENSIVE LINE PROTECT RUSSELL WILSON?
Wilson has taken his share of hits this season, as the quarterback's 37 sacks taken are the second most in the league. In recent games there has been improvement: Wilson has averaged 2.67 sacks per game over the last three weeks, compared to 3.63 in his first eight games.
A big reason for this improvement may be more consistent personnel on the front five. After several different combinations through much of the season due to injuries, Sunday's game against the Chiefs could be the third game in a row with the same group of players on the offensive line. Guard Dalton Risner is listed as questionable, but he returned to practice late in the week.
"Any time you get reps with each other, it's going to help out," Outten said. "It's going to benefit the whole offense. ... As far as the group up front, I thought they held their own as far as going against a really good defensive line."
The players are continuing to develop chemistry, but the Chiefs' defensive front will test them. Three-time All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones has recorded 10 sacks so far this season, and three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Frank Clark is playing at a high level as well.
"Those two guys are absolutely spectacular," Hackett said. "We're going to definitely have to have a plan for them. They do a great job with Chris Jones playing him at three technique, moving him outside to rush the tackles. At the same time, you have '55' (Clark). Frank is playing at a high level, and even [defensive end Carlos] Dunlap. He's an older veteran player that is a huge man. I remember going against him when I was all the way back at the Buffalo Bills. He's a very good football player. They have a good defense."
Denver's offensive line will need to prevent Kansas City's defensive front from getting to Wilson, who could have difficulties in the passing game if he faces consistent pressure.
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