DENVER -- In some ways, the Broncos and Chiefs took drastically different routes to arrive at their Sunday night showdown for first place in the AFC West.
No team has scored more points than the Broncos, who remain on pace to set a league single-season record. No one this year has conceded fewer points than the Chiefs, who lead the league in sacks (although that pace has dropped considerably with just one sack in their last two outings).
But five of the Chiefs' wins have come over teams the Broncos have defeated, and the Broncos' strength of schedule so far (opponents combined record: 35-49) isn't much better than Kansas City's (30-55). Both played close games against the Cowboys. Both beat the Raiders, Giants and Jaguars convincingly; the main discrepancy was in their wins over the Eagles: Denver's was by 32; Kansas City's by 10. The average margin of victory against those five common opponents was 15.6 for Kansas City and 17.0 for Denver.
The styles are different. The strengths are divergent. But the paths are mostly parallel.
1. LIMIT THE GIVEAWAYS.
It's pretty simple. Kansas City has scored 77 points off turnovers, which represents 35.9 percent of its total output this year. Denver, on the other hand, has scored just 12.1 percent of its points off turnovers. The Chiefs have also feasted off short fields, and as a result, their average scoring drive is 48.7 yards -- which is 17.1 percent shorter than Denver's average scoring march. Forcing opponents' miscues is routine to Kansas City; if the Broncos can avoid falling into this trap, they can force the Chiefs to play a game they haven't experienced this season.
If the Broncos avoid these miscues, they give their defense a chance to have a game in which the scoreboard number reflects their overall performance. That hasn't been the case in the last two games -- the first with Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard playing together. Although the Broncos have held opponents to 34.9 percent below their averages in passing yardage the last two games, they've allowed 41 points -- but 21 have come on returns or with short fields that resulted from turnovers. Avoid those, and the defense has a chance to flourish.
2. KEEP MANNING UPRIGHT.
This is closely tied to point No. 1, specifically in regard to Manning's recent spate of fumbles: five in the last four games. The first two came on snaps against Jacksonville, but the last three were the result of sacks, meaning that the football has come loose on three of eight sacks Manning has absorbed since Week 7.
Kansas City's front seven is formidable. Nose tackle Dontari Poe is disruptive enough to draw the attention of two -- and sometimes three -- blockers; this frees up Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and the occasional safety or slot cornerback to blitz and create further problems. If one man can handle Poe, the Broncos would be in outstanding shape, but the next team this year that effectively defuses Poe with just one blocker will be the first.
Thus, the chain reaction means that Knowshon Moreno and Denver's tight ends will have to play a role in keeping the pocket pristine. That could reduce Manning's potential targets, but if the blockers do their jobs, could open up some deeper slants and go routes if the Chiefs opt to blitz with their defensive backs.
3. BE PREPARED FOR A GAME THAT HAS A DIFFERENT FLOW.
First, there's no shame in playing a field-position game against the Chiefs. Just 27.3 percent of their scoring drives have covered at least 70 yards, and 51.5 percent of them have been less than 50 yards. But the Broncos have been much more proficient at long drives; 44.6 percent of their scores have come after marches of 70 or more yards, and just 30.4 percent of their scoring drives have traversed less than half the field.
Kansas City is a big-play team, but in a much different regard than almost any other; they're as likely to make an explosive play on defense as on offense, having scored six defensive touchdowns this season and seven overall on returns. The Broncos can't put them in position to continue this trend, which crested in Buffalo a fortnight ago, when Kansas City's only touchdowns were on defensive returns.
Denver must also try to make a big play on defense. The defense has been far more effective against the pass in games that Von Miller and Wesley Woodyard have played together; if this continues and leads to pressure on Alex Smith, the scales could tip decisively in Denver's favor.