KANSAS CITY — The Broncos' biggest game in half a decade has almost arrived.
When the lights of GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium flicker on and "Sunday Night Football" kicks off, the Broncos will have a chance to earn their best win since Super Bowl 50.
The stakes couldn't be higher, as the Broncos can snap an 11-game losing streak to the Chiefs and snag the AFC West lead with a win. The Broncos haven't held a share of the division lead this late in the year since winning their last division title in 2015. The Broncos could also snap a six-game losing streak on "Sunday Night Football" that dates back to an overtime win over the Patriots in 2015.
Safety Justin Simmons, who has found personal success vs. Kansas City but has yet to beat the Chiefs, said the matchup was "without a doubt" the biggest of his career.
"Everyone knows if you want to be where the Broncos are used to being, you've got to beat Kansas City, and especially at Arrowhead," Simmons said this week. "So, I'm really excited for Sunday night. What an opportunity — a big win this past Sunday and a chance to have a bid for first place in our division with a win."
The challenge, though, may be the biggest of the season for the Broncos. Just three Broncos quarterbacks have ever won at Arrowhead in December, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes holds a 7-1 record at home in the calendar's final month.
After struggling to a 3-4 start to the season, Kansas City has earned four consecutive wins and reasserted itself as the division leader.
On Sunday, that could change.
These are the questions the Broncos will have to answer to regain the top spot in the AFC West:
CAN THE BRONCOS' DEFENSE LIMIT MAHOMES AND CO.?
The season-long stats don't suggest that Kansas City's offense is at its prior heights, but the Chiefs' offense may be finding its form. Despite ranking ninth in scoring offense and 31st in giveaways, the Chiefs have had a bit more success in recent weeks. They posted a 41-point performance against the Raiders in Week 10, and they've recorded 13 plays of at least 20 yards over the last two games.
"They're back to being the Chiefs again," Head Coach Vic Fangio said this week.
The Broncos, though, should be poised to match up with Kansas City. Simmons and AFC Defensive Player of the Week Pat Surtain II lead a revamped secondary, Bradley Chubb has returned to provide a boost to the team's outside linebacking corps and Kenny Young and Baron Browning have shored up the team's front-seven. If this defense can play like it did last season in Arrowhead, the Broncos should have a fighting chance.
A year ago, the Broncos held the Chiefs to 22 points — and they held the upper hand in situational football, as the Chiefs were 3-of-10 on third down and didn't score a touchdown in four red-zone opportunities.
This year's unit is healthier and more talented, and it should have a chance to also force some mistakes. The Chiefs have turned it 22 times, which was second-worst in the league entering Week 13. Mahomes is one interception from tying his single-season career high, and he's posted a passer rating of over 75 just once in the last five weeks.
If the Broncos can find similar success on third down and in the red zone while also forcing a turnover or two, they should limit a Chiefs offense that has posted more than 20 points just twice since Week 5.
Kansas City will make its share of plays. The difference in Sunday's game may be how the team responds.
"I think from a defensive standpoint, that to me is why I love the game," Simmons said Wednesday. "They get paid too. They've got great playmakers across the board. They're going to hit their big plays. From a defensive perspective, you've always got to have that next-play mentality. You can always change the game the next play. So even if they hit a big bomb and they're in the red zone, that next play, you're able to negate that and change the game. That's one of the biggest points of emphasis and it's something that's always in the back of my mind. I keep saying it, but I'm just excited for Sunday."
CAN DENVER STRING TOGETHER DRIVES?
There's a notion that to beat the Chiefs, the Broncos' offense needs to go off. The narrative suggests that the Broncos will need to top 30 points to win a shootout against Kansas City.
While it's possible the Broncos could post their highest scoring output of the season in a back-and-forth upset over the Chiefs, that may not be necessary. In three of Denver's most recent games against top offenses, they've found success without posting absurd scoring totals.
Last week against the Chargers, the Broncos played complementary football as they held onto the ball and pieced together long drives. Denver recorded five drives of at least four minutes, and the Broncos dominated time of possession in both the first and fourth quarters. The edge slipped in the second quarter after Teddy Bridgewater exited with a leg injury, but the Broncos had just one three-and-out during the six possessions in which Bridgewater was on the field.
The Broncos weren't just playing keep-away from the Chargers' talented offense. They also found points, as they scored touchdowns on three of their six possessions that Bridgewater started. The final drive was an efficient four-minute drill in which the Broncos aimed to run time off the clock rather than score.
Over the course of the game, the Broncos were incredibly efficient. They went 8-of-11 on third down — their best mark in at least 30 years — and scored touchdowns on all three red-zone trips.
A look at the Broncos' win over Dallas earlier this year shows a similarly dominant performance, as Denver extended drives and never had consecutive three-and-outs.
And against the Chiefs last December, the Broncos didn't have a single three-and-out as they were able to strings drive together.
They'll need to finish some of those drives — Denver scored just two touchdowns last year in Arrowhead — but there's a formula for success. If the Broncos can string together long drives, be efficient in the red zone and avoid turning the ball over, they'll minimize the impact of the Chiefs' offense and avoid putting their defense in bad situations. That will likely be preferable to a back-and-forth battle.
CAN THE BRONCOS MAKE THE CRITICAL PLAYS?
This question isn't reliant on statistics, and it's not easily quantifiable. But there's no doubting its importance. Over the course of the game, there will be moments that are clear turning points.
A long third down. A possession in the red zone. A last-minute fourth-quarter drive.
There are two and three moments in every game that can change the outcome, and the Broncos will need to come out ahead in these moments to earn a victory.
Against the Chargers, Denver made those plays. They came up with a stop on a big fourth-down play in the second quarter. Surtain picked off Justin Herbert in the end zone. Bridgewater then connected on a pair of third-and-longs that helped the Broncos put together a long touchdown drive to go up two scores. If any of those moments had flipped in the Chargers' favor, it's possible the game would have played out differently.
While Denver came up big in the biggest moments in Week 12, that hasn't happened of late against Kansas City. There's any number of moments from the Broncos' 11-game losing streak that went in the Chiefs' favor. In 2018 in Denver, Mahomes completed a third-down pass with his left hand, and the Broncos overthrew a potential game-winning score.
If the Broncos are able to break their skid this weekend, it's likely they'll do so in a close win — and that makes it even more critical that Denver gains the edge on the game's most important plays.
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