KANSAS CITY, Mo. --Two weeks ago, the Chiefs' radio broadcast suggested that the Sunday Night Football showdown between their team and the Broncos was Kansas City's biggest regular-season game in 13 years.
The rematch might be bigger.
Certainly, it determines who has the inside track on the AFC West. A Broncos win would give them a one-game lead with a head-to-head tiebreaker in hand; effectively, Denver would have to lose twice in the last quarter of the season to not claim its third consecutive AFC West crown.
A Chiefs win gives them a one-game lead in the standings, but not a tiebreaker advantage; the Broncos would still hold a division-record and common-opponent edge if they won out. The Broncos wouldn't control their path; but they'd need only one Chiefs slip-up -- not the two Kansas City would need from the Broncos if Denver wins.
Season storylines will change based on the outcome at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday -- a result that could be tipped by injuries that could take a toll on each team's pass rush.
1. DEFENSE: WINNING THE BATTLE UP FRONT.
Doing so grew more difficult this week with the season-ending hip injury to Kevin Vickerson and the hospitalization of Derek Wolfe because of seizure-like symptoms, robbing the Broncos of two key components from their defensive line.
Vickerson's absence thrusts Sylvester Williams and Mitch Unrein into more prominent roles, but doesn't present as much of an issue in shuffling as Wolfe's will. Malik Jackson is likely to see more playing time, since he and Wolfe have similar roles on the defense, working outside and inside depending on the situation and the personnel grouping. But the two also lined up together 151 times this season, usually in obvious passing situations (together, they faced 114 pass plays and 37 runs).
The Broncos have several options to relieve Wolfe. Williams, whose strength is in the pass rush, could see a further boost to his playing time by inheriting some of that work. They could also bump Robert Ayers inside more often than usual, returning him to a dual inside-outside role he handled extensively in 2011.
No matter what combinations the Broncos use -- and they lead the league with 357 different defensive personnel groupings this year -- the task will be the same: make Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith uncomfortable, while not sacrificing any containment of the run or the screen passes to Jamaal Charles that have helped propel the Chiefs most of the year.
2. OFFENSE: EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED.
With Justin Houston out and Tamba Hali playing on an injured ankle, the Chiefs' pass rush, once the league's most prolific, will have to adjust in order to generate the same level of pressure it previously did. The Chiefs have used safety and slot-cornerback blitzes effectively at times throughout the season, and could lean on these tactics more heavily than usual
The best answer to this is to focus on your own game plan, and not get distracted by the wrinkles that Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton concocts. And if and when the Chiefs bring pressure from all angles, the crosses, screen passes and intricate timing of the offense is the best counter.
3. AVOID THE BIG MISTAKE.**
Kansas City's two-game slide has coincided with its inability to force turnovers. During the Chiefs' nine-game winning streak, no team was more opportunistic off opponents' giveaways; the last two weeks, the Chiefs have forced just one takeaway -- and it was followed by a lost fumble one play later in the first leg of this home-and-home series. Their loss to San Diego last Sunday marked Kansas City's first game without a takeaway this year.
The expected presence of Knowshon Moreno is significant -- although the Broncos have to get their other running backs some work; the accumulated pounding that Moreno has absorbed this year, particularly last week, is not sustainable. That brings fumbles -- and the need to avoid them -- back to the forefront.