Since the start of the 2012 season, the Chiefs are 13-21 in the regular season, well shy of the Broncos' 28-6 mark. Predictably, the Broncos have won all five games against Kansas City in that span. But three were decided by one score, in the final moments, and two of them required a deflection of a potential game-tying touchdown pass to preserve the win.
The difference has been the Broncos' ability to find the Chiefs' soft spots and pick at them -- repeatedly. This week's edition of Upon Further Review begins with the first play from scrimmage, when the Broncos forced a one-on-one matchup against Marcus Cooper, the Chiefs cornerback who was beaten repeatedly during their Week 13 game last year:
There are three elements involved in creating the one-on-one matchup that Emmanuel Sanders won. First is Peyton Manning's playfake to Montee Ball; the Chiefs' response to it leaves only one linebacker in coverage outside the box.
Kansas City's safeties don't react to the play-action, which is tied to the second and third elements: Manning's ability to scan the field and Julius Thomas' route underneath the safeties. He runs 10 yards before he begins cutting to his left. Having seen how Thomas burned the Indianapolis Colts a week earlier, the safeties react when he slows to cut; they were 20 and 17 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, but they come back to Thomas when he begins his quick in. At this point, Manning is looking in that direction.
But seven yards beyond Thomas and outside the numbers is Sanders. Because the safeties have reacted to Thomas, there is no help for Cooper as Sanders begins his deep post route. The pass is perfect, and while Cooper had good coverage, his work is limited to damage control: minimizing the yardage after the catch.
The Chiefs had a conservative game plan on defense. They never blitzed a safety or a cornerback, and blitzed Justin Houston barely half as often on a per-play basis as they did against the Titans a week earlier. But sometimes, they got too conservative. Take this 16-yard pass to Ball in the second quarter.
Kansas City drops eight men into coverage, leaving a three-man rush. Three-on-five isn't going to break down the Broncos' offensive line, especially with Manny Ramirez having success in blocking nose tackle Dontari Poe one-on-one. The Chiefs choose to focus on the targets outside the seam to the right side; there are five defenders monitoring Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas and Jacob Tamme.
That leaves three defenders. One is the deep safety, who is nearly 10 yards away from Sanders, who is streaking open down the left side, along the numbers. Manning would have had a chance for a deep connection if he'd looked in that direction. But instead, he still makes a good play with a slight pump as if he's going to throw right, then turning to Ball down the middle.
No defender is within five yards of Ball, who is standing at the 46-yard-line. The Chiefs react too late, and he adds 13 yards after the reception. This is when the Broncos' offense was hitting its stride, and was at its usual "pick your poison" efficiency.
Later that series, Ball had one of his best carries of the day, a 17-yard burst up the middle. On this first down, the Chiefs are playing run; the outside linebackers have no coverage responsibilities and set the edge.
The keys to the gain are two-fold: first, Ball must commit to the left side enough to draw linebacker Josh Mauga away from the hole developing counter to the flow of the play. At the same time, right tackle Chris Clark must divert left defensive end Allen Bailey behind Ball.
Once this happens, it's all Ball. After bouncing off Manny Ramirez, he makes a good cut in front of Houston and moves upfield; his ability to evade Houston turns a 3-yard gain into a 17-yard jaunt.
It wasn't a banner day for the defense, which lamented its mistakes -- on third downs in particular. But a fourth-and-goal deflection redeemed it -- a redemption that was delayed only by an instant-replay reversal.
So DeMarcus Ware's strip-sack fumble will be forgotten, registered forever as a simple incompletion. But the play itself was arguably the defense's best of the day, and came together with outstanding downfield coverage from the seven Broncos who dropped back. That bought enough time for Ware to get past Eric Fisher and behind Smith to make the play on the football.
With 1.5 sacks last week and that play Sunday, Ware is providing what the Broncos expected from him in the pass rush.