NFL Preview - Kansas City (3-12) at Denver (8-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The good thing about starting a season 6-0 is that, when you follow it up with a dismal stretch of 2-7 football, you might still have something for which to play.
That's the situation that both graces and confronts the Denver Broncos on Sunday, as they play host to the AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs in the regular season finale for each team.
Josh McDaniels and company have fallen a long way from the perch from which they stood on October 19th, when they were undefeated at the top of the AFC West with a three-and-a-half game lead over the San Diego Chargers, whom the Broncos had just defeated.
The 6-0 start was followed by a four-game losing streak, before Denver seemingly righted the ship with consecutive wins over the Giants (26-6) and Chiefs (44-13), before again slipping their way to a three-game skid that included defeats to the Colts (28-16), Raiders (20-19), and last week, to the Eagles (30-27).
Denver nearly improved its standing while in Philadelphia, rebounding from a 27-10 second-half deficit to tie the game at 27-27, but a late Eagles scoring drive culminating with a 28-yard game-winning field goal by Philly's David Akers sent the Broncos back to the loss column.
That defeat kept the Broncos from maintaining controlling of their own playoff destiny, though Denver still has reasonable odds to make the postseason. With a victory over Kansas City, the Broncos' easiest road to the postseason would require losses for two of the following three teams - the Jets (vs. Bengals), Ravens (at Raiders), and/or Steelers (at Dolphins) - or a win by the Texans (vs. Patriots) and losses for either the Jets or Ravens.
Even a loss by Denver against the Chiefs would not necessarily eliminate the Broncos, though the team would then need at least four members of a five-team group including the Jets, Ravens, Steelers, Texans, and Jaguars (at Browns) to lose in Week 17 in order to get the Broncos in at 8-8.
If the wins, losses, and various tie-breaking scenarios fail to fall Denver's way on Sunday, the Broncos will have missed the postseason for a fourth consecutive year, which would be the longest such stretch since 1960-76, when the organization failed to secure a postseason berth in its first 17 years of existence.
The Chiefs, meanwhile, have long since resigned themselves to another postseason-less season, and progress could be attained by Todd Haley's team if it simply avoids further embarrassment on Sunday.
Kansas City has lost five in a row since upsetting the Steelers in overtime back on Nov. 22nd, and has allowed more than 40 points three times during its five-game skid.
Last week's somewhat respectable 17-10 loss at playoff-bound Cincinnati dropped the Chiefs to 0-13 in the month of December since the team scored a 35-30 win over the Jaguars on Dec. 31, 2006.
Kansas City holds a 53-45 lead in its all-time series with Denver, but was drilled by a 44-13 score when the teams met at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 13. The clubs embarked on a conventional split of last year's home-and-home, including a 33-19 home victory for the Chiefs in Week 4, and a 24-17 Broncos triumph at Invesco Field at Mile High in Week 14. The latter game ranked as the 146th and (presumably) final win the Broncos career of head coach Mike Shanahan. The Chiefs are 0-8 in Denver since last winning there in 2000.
The two storied franchises have met just once in the postseason, with the Broncos claiming a 14-10 road victory in a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff. The Broncos' McDaniels is 1-0 against both the Chiefs and Kansas City head coach Haley.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
There hasn't been a more disappointing element to the Chiefs' season than the team's weakness on offense, as the hiring of a bright offensive mind (Haley) and acquisition of what was sold on the fan base as a franchise quarterback (Matt Cassel) has not helped Kansas City rise above 28th in NFL total offense (288.5 yards per game). Cassel's (2717 passing yards, 16 TD, 15 INT) passer rating (70.1) and completion percentage (55.0) are both sub-standard, and wideouts Dwayne Bowe (46 receptions, 4 TD) and Chris Chambers (31 receptions, 4 TD) have both been inconsistent. The team's best offensive weapon at the moment is probably running back Jamaal Charles (861 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 6 TD), who is averaging 5.2 yards per rush and can go over 1,000 yards for the season with 138 yards on Sunday. Charles has hit triple-digits in three straight games, but was held to 56 yards on 18 carries in the first meeting with the Broncos. A woeful Kansas City o-line has allowed 45 sacks on the year.
Though the Broncos rank fifth in the league in total defense (301.1 yards per game) and have forced a whopping 14 turnovers over their last five games combined, Mike Nolan's group has also allowed late scoring drives that have sunk the team in losses to the Colts, Raiders, and Eagles. A big-name secondary led by cornerback Champ Bailey (72 receptions, 3 INT) and safety Brian Dawkins (108 tackles, 2 INT) has not lived up to its reputation of late, though the unit should have things somewhat easier against a shaky Kansas City passing attack. Bailey had an interception of Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb last week, but was also flagged for a key pass interference penalty in the loss. Outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (48 tackles, 17 sacks) had two sacks last week to extend his NFL lead in that category. A Denver team that allowed 241 ground yards to the Raiders the week before bounced back a bit against the Eagles, holding three Philly running backs to 79 yards on 22 combined carries. Linebackers Mario Haggan (59 tackles, 1 sack), D.J. Williams (111 tackles, 3.5 sacks), and Andra Davis (84 tackles, 3.5 sacks) combined for 19 stops in the defeat.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
After the way their running game performed against Kansas City last time out, you can bet the Broncos will be taking to the ground early and often on Sunday. Denver running backs Correll Buckhalter (624 rushing yards, 1 TD, 29 receptions), Knowshon Moreno (897 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 7 TD), and Peyton Hillis (54 rushing yards, 1 TD) combined for 246 yards on 40 combined carries in their 31-point shellacking of the Chiefs, though the team has not broken 100 rushing yards in their three games since. The rookie Moreno needs 103 yards to break 1,000 for the season, though the first-rounder has yet to hit triple-digits this season. The Denver passing game has been efficient though not explosive, with Kyle Orton (3371 passing yards, 20 TD, 9 INT) posting a 90-plus passer rating in four straight games, but going 10 straight games without throwing for 300 yards. Orton threw three TD passes during last week's comeback in Philadelphia, including one to Moreno and two to wideout Jabar Gaffney (40 receptions, 2 TD), but Pro Bowl wideout Brandon Marshall (101 receptions, 10 TD) was limited to 39 yards on eight grabs. A hot-and-cold Broncos line has surrendered 39 sacks on the year.
The Chiefs are no better against the run than they were the first time they met the Broncos, as Kansas City comes off a week in which Cedric Benson piled up 133 yards on 29 carries. The Chiefs comes into Week 17 ranked 31st in the league against the run (161.3 yards per game), ahead of only the Bills, and recent top five picks along the d-line like Glenn Dorsey (50 tackles) and Tyson Jackson (35 tackles) have made only a minimal impact in the trenches. The team's inside linebackers, Demorrio Williams (111 tackles) and Corey Mays (81 tackles), have not played especially well and will probably be on the chopping block in the offseason. The secondary, led by versatile safety Mike Brown (97 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks) and cornerbacks Brandon Flowers (61 tackles, 4 INT) and Brandon Carr (56 tackles, 1 INT), has been better, but a pass rush paced by the efforts of end Tamba Hali (61 tackles, 7.5 sacks) has generated just 20 sacks on the year.
Though most fantasy championships have already been decided, this will be a matchup to watch for a few managers who still have meaningful Week 17 games. On the Broncos side, Moreno and Marshall are must-plays, kicker Matt Prater and the Denver defense our decent choices, and Buckhalter is worth considering given his performance against the Chiefs last time out.
Kansas City is not completely devoid of options, since Charles is within reach of 1,000 yards and figures to contribute something, while Bowe comes off a nine-catch week and should be Cassel's number one option again.
The Broncos have been somewhat exposed during their 2-7 stretch of football, but they haven't been exposed as awful, just mediocre. Only two of the seven losses have been horrendous (Redskins, Raiders), and just last week, Denver competed for 60 minutes with an Eagles team that some have pegged for the Super Bowl. Thus, beating bad teams like the Chiefs, as the Broncos have already done in decisive fashion once this year, is well within Denver's powers. Kansas City figures to be a bit more competitive here than it was in the matchup at Arrowhead Stadium, lest the team should carry a horrible embarrassment to a division rival into the offseason, but the Chiefs simply lack the muscle to pull off an upset here.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 25, Chiefs 13
12/30 23:55:40 ET