NFL Preview - Denver (3-8) at Kansas City (7-4)
By Chris Ruddick, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Emotions could be running high when the Denver Broncos visit the AFC West-leading Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday in a pivotal division matchup at Arrowhead Stadium.
It was just three weeks ago that the Broncos walloped the Chiefs, 49-29, in Denver. Following the contest, Kansas City head coach Todd Haley refused to shake the hand of the Broncos' Josh McDaniels and pointed a finger at him, remarking that he felt that Denver had tried to run up the score.
McDaniels, though, could have bigger problems on his hand, as his job security has come into question thanks in part to the Broncos' losing six of their last seven games, with the rout of the Chiefs the team's lone win over that span.
The second-year Denver head coach got an official reprieve -- but not exactly a binding one -- earlier this week, when Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said he had no immediate plans to make a coaching change in spite of the team's 3-8 record and McDaniels' personal 5-16 slate since a 6-0 start fizzled out last season.
Denver lost, 36-33, to visiting St. Louis last Sunday, dropping it four games behind the front-running Chiefs in the AFC West with five to play.
"This has been a very trying and disappointing season for all of us," Bowlen said. "We haven't had the success we had hoped to achieve. Josh McDaniels is the head coach of the Broncos, and you always strive for stability at that position. However, with five games left in the 2010 season, we will continue to monitor the progress of the team and evaluate what's in the best interest of this franchise."
In a subsequent interview with former Denver Post columnist Thomas George, Bowlen was more specific about his plans to retain McDaniels beyond the end of this season.
"I am not interested in making a coaching change," he said. "I'm very happy with Josh. Josh is doing a good job. I wish he had a few more wins, but we've got five games to go. I've got 27 years in this business. The ball bounces funny, and it doesn't always bounce your way."
Denver's 5-16 record since Nov. 1, 2009 is its worst 21-game stretch in four decades, and the team is one defeat away from being officially eliminated from the playoffs.
Kansas City, meanwhile, has no such problems on its staff, as it sits atop the AFC West standings at 7-4. The only problem in Chiefs-land these days are the surging San Diego Chargers, who trail Kansas City by just a game in the division with a critical matchup on tap between the two in Week 14.
First things first, though, and that is this week's tilt, in which the Chiefs will try to win their third straight game following a 42-24 blowout victory over Seattle at the always-tough Quest Field in Week 12.
Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel had a career day with four touchdown passes, while wideout Dwayne Bowe continued his amazing season, hauling in three of those scores as part of a 13 catch, 170-yard performance.
Kansas City is an impressive 5-0 this season at home, where it has outscored its opponents by a 138-67 margin.
Kansas City holds a 54-46 lead in its all-time series with Denver, but as previously mentioned, suffered a 49-29 loss when these teams squared off at Invesco Field at Mile High on Nov. 14. The clubs had an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home set, with the Broncos drilling the Chiefs by a 44-13 score at Arrowhead Stadium and Kansas City exacting revenge with a 44-24 rout in Denver during the regular-season finale. The Broncos last swept the Chiefs in 2007.
The two former AFL franchises have met just once in the postseason since the 1970 merger, with the Broncos claiming a 14-10 road victory in a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff.
McDaniels is 2-1 in three lifetime encounters with both Haley and the Chiefs.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Whatever the Broncos' problems are, it'd be hard to pin them on quarterback Kyle Orton, who leads a Denver passing attack that's churned out an average of 288.3 yards per week -- fourth-best in the league. The Broncos score 22.7 points per game (17th overall) and gain overall yards at a rate of 367.6 per game (8th in the league). Orton's 3,370 yards are the most in the NFL this season and he has thrown 20 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He threw for 347 yards with three scores in the loss to the Rams while completing 22-of-34 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns in the rout of the Chiefs during Week 10. Wideout Brandon Lloyd (58 receptions, 1,122 yards, 9 TD) has been Orton's favorite target and will be aiming for a fifth straight game with a touchdown. His nine on the season are a career high. Fellow wide receiver Jabar Gaffney, meanwhile, has averaged 135 yards in his last two contests against Kansas City. The running game has been a problem, however, as Denver owns the worst rushing attack in the AFC with an average of just 79.4 yards per game. The return of Knowshon Moreno has sparked that area somewhat, as he shoots for a fourth straight game with 100-plus yards from scrimmage this week. He has also scored on the ground in each of the last two weeks.
Kansas City has struggled in stopping the pass this season and enters Sunday's tilt 24th in the league in that category, surrendering 246.5 yards per game through the air. Orton lit the Chiefs up a few weeks ago and will look to do the same this week to a secondary that should get a few important pieces back. Cornerback Brandon Flowers (46 tackles, 2 INT) missed last week's win in Seattle with a hamstring injury, but has practiced this week, while safety Jon McGraw, who has missed the last three weeks with knee and head injuries, is also expected to return. As bad as Kansas City has been against the pass, it has done a good job in stopping the run, surrendering just 96.5 yards per game (7th overall) on the ground. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and his team- high 88 tackles have been a big reason why. Johnson had perhaps the biggest play in the win over the Seahawks, as his sack of Matt Hasselbeck caused a fumble that was recovered by Kansas City and set up the score that put the Chiefs ahead by a 35-17 count. Fellow linebacker Tamba Hali recovered the big fumble on the Johnson sack. He leads the team with eight sacks and needs one more to pass the career-high 8 1/2 he had a year ago.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Cassel, the AFC's Player of the Month for November, finished Sunday's win with a 129.3 passer rating, his fifth 100-plus game of the season. He also tied a career high with his four touchdown passes and has now had 127 consecutive attempts without an interception. Bowe leads the league with 14 touchdowns and has now moved into a sixth-place tie in the AFC with 58 receptions, while his 885 receiving yards are fourth-best in the conference. His touchdown total is the most by a NFL receiver through 11 games since Randy Moss hauled in 16 for the Patriots in an unbeaten 2007 regular season. While Cassel-to-Bowe has become trendy in KC, it has been the Chiefs' NFL-best rushing attack (174.3 ypg) that has catapulted them to the top of the standings. Jamaal Charles has 1,021 yards on the ground, topping the 1,000-yard mark in fewer carries (161) than any other back in Kansas City. His backfield partner, Thomas Jones (712 rushing yards, 5 TD) has 9,971 career rushing yards and needs 71 more to become the 25th player in NFL history to hit the 10,000-yard plateau. LaDainian Tomlinson and Fred Taylor are the only active players in that elite club. Tight end Tony Moeaki, second on the team with 32 receptions, returned last week after sitting out a game with a concussion, while wideout Dexter McCluster could come back from an ankle injury that has caused him to miss the last five games.
Albeit in a come-from-behind effort, Cassel torched the Broncos defense to the tune of 469 yards in Week 10 and could be in line for another strong showing this Sunday, as he goes up against a Denver defense that is just 20th in the league in pass efficiency. The Broncos secondary looked solid at times this past week, but in the end the group still allowed Rams rookie Sam Bradford to throw for 308 yards and three touchdowns. A backfield in which all four regulars are 32 years old or over has begun to show its age, as cornerback Andre Goodman has played in only four games due to a quadriceps problem and hasn't played since Week 8, while 37-year-old free safety Brian Dawkins (50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) is a shell of the player that was an eight-time Pro Bowl selection. Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey continues to lead the group with a team-high two interceptions. Denver is third-worst against the run in the league, allowing an average of 141.6 yards. A sporadic pass rush that's generated a mere 16 sacks hasn't helped matters, although the team did take down Bradford three times last week and Cassel four times in the November 14th tilt. Outside linebacker Mario Haggan (64 tackles, 4 sacks) had three of those sacks of Cassel, one of which forced a fumble that counterpart Jason Hunter (46 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) returned 75 yards for a touchdown.
With most leagues playing their final regular-season game this week, there are plenty of fantasy options in this contest. For the Chiefs, Charles remains the better start between him and Jones, but the latter has found the end zone more. Bowe is a stud and a must-start, while Cassel remains a decent option in deeper leagues. However, given the way Kansas City runs the ball, Cassel's production is hit-and-miss at best. Orton, meanwhile, has been the surprise of the fantasy season and is among the league leaders in every important quarterback category. Lloyd is probably a decent start too, but Gaffney could see the bulk of the targets this Sunday. Denver's running game has gotten better over the last couple of weeks, but avoid starting Moreno regardless. Neither defense is anything to write home about.
With the Chargers on tap next week, this could have been the classic trap game for a Chiefs team that a lot of people still don't believe in. Luckily they are facing the one team that Haley will not allow to overlook in the underachieving Broncos. Cassel-to-Bowe is becoming a very dangerous tandem, but the load this week figures to be carried by Charles and Jones as they go up against a very porous Denver front seven. Things just seem to be spiraling out of control for McDaniels, whose job security will once again be called into question this coming week.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Kansas City 35, Denver 17
12/02 14:05:49 ET