KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- **Every move in the NFL is, to some degree, a calculated gamble.
The decision to keep Brandon McManus for more than four games was one. This week's change from McManus to Connor Barth was another. Barth has a proven record of accuracy on placekicks; if he remains as reliable there as he was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he should hit at least four of every five attempts.
The Broncos' reshuffled offensive line will face one of the NFL's best pass rushers. Check out five key matchups that could affect the outcome of Sunday's game.
But Barth has not handled full-time kickoff duties since 2010. And this week, he's thrown into the deep end of the pool with a couple of sharks awaiting: Kansas City returners Knile Davis and De'Anthony Thomas. Combined, they've averaged 45.0 yards per return in the last five games, with seven returns of at least 40 yards.
Davis tore through the Broncos' kickoff coverage last December for a 108-yard touchdown that helped Kansas City build a 21-7 lead at Arrowhead Stadium before rallying. Now, Denver's kickoff-coverage unit -- ranked 21st in the league with an average of 24.7 yards per kickoff return against it -- faces the potential for more runbacks.
But for what it's worth, the Broncos have the right mindset, choosing to embrace the potential challenge.
"I'll tell you the truth: when Brandon was kicking them out of the end zone, a lot of guys were like, 'Golly, can't we get just one to come out?' And now there's a new guy in here, and they might not be going out the back, and I've seen a lot of guys like, 'Yeah, let's go, let's make these plays,'" said linebacker and special-teams stalwart Steven Johnson. "So it's going to be a good deal for us. There's going to be a lot of opportunities, some more opportunities, for guys to make plays, and that what this league is all about."
Every player at this level wants the game to come down to him at least once. It's part of the confidence involved with making it to the apex of the profession; you don't get there being afraid of having the outcome rest on your abilities.
They believe they can rise to the occasion, and want the opportunity.
"To tell you the truth, I pray that I'm on it," Johnson said. "Because we've got a little competition going on here in special teams, and it's kind of big. We've got a lot of good special-teams guys, whether it's David Bruton, Omar Bolden, myself, Jacob Tamme, we've got a lot of guys who can make a lot of plays."
And how many plays the entire team makes will determine whether the Broncos can get their first road win over a winning team this season, a result that will in part come down to how the Broncos fare in this week's three keys:
1. STABILITY THROUGH BALANCE.
The best way to keep Kansas City's vaunted pass rush from disrupting the Broncos' efforts is to force Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and their fellow front-seven defenders to approach with caution, taking the edge off their pass rush, which happens through an effective screen-pass and ground game, the latter of which also opens up the play-action.
The 200 collective rushing yards amassed by C.J. Anderson and Juwan Thompson against Miami last week offers evidence that the Broncos can keep the Chiefs off-balance.
"It's always important to establish the run. We don't want to be a one-dimensional offense," said tight end Virgil Green. "We think we have the tools to run the ball and throw the ball. I think we have to establish the run, and I think we will do that."
- CONTAIN THE CHIEFS UNDERNEATH.**
The Chiefs' vertical passing game has struggled, but the same cannot be said of their underneath and intermediate routes, where running back Jamaal Charles remains a dangerous threat in space and agile tight end Travis Kelce continues to grow into one of the most effective tight ends in space.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Kelce's moves led to 12 missed tackles in the Chiefs' first 11 games, and his rate of one missed tackle forced every 3.42 receptions is the third-best in the league, behind Tennessee's Delanie Walker and Chicago's Martellus Bennett. He also ranks fifth among tight ends in average yardage after the catch per reception (7.8 yards), in part because of the missed tackles he forces. It will be crucial for the Broncos' secondary and linebackers to bring down Charles, Kelce and other short targets at the first opportunity.
3. DON'T ALLOW THE BREAKAWAY RETURN.
Thomas and Davis represent the sternest test possible for the Broncos on kickoff returns. The unit's form has improved this year, Barth believes his leg could be stronger than it was prior to his Achilles tendon injury, and kickoffs are now from the 35 after being from the 30-yard-line when he last handled this work on an extensive basis. But if this becomes a game of field position, the kickoff-coverage unit must do well at preventing lanes from opening up and minimizing the potential damage.