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NFL Preview - Denver (9-2) at Kansas City (9-2)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The AFC West's heavyweights will meet for the second time in three weeks, this time in the City of Fountains, when the Kansas City Chiefs play host to the Denver Broncos.
Both teams enter Week 13 tied atop the division with the best record in the AFC at 9-2. In Week 11, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning passed for 323 yards and a touchdown in the Broncos' 27-17 win over the Chiefs.
Denver is 3-0 in division games this season so this shapes up as a virtual must win for Kansas City if the Chiefs have any desires on the AFC West crown and a first-round bye in the postseason.
Kansas City opened the 2013 campaign with nine consecutive wins before the Week 11 loss in Denver, becoming the first team in the four major professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) to start a season 9-0 after finishing with the worst record (2-14) in the previous year.
"There's a lot of season left and a lot can happen," said Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. "We have to get back to the mentality of 'Let's just go 1-0 this week.' We can't be looking beyond that."
Seyi Ajirotutu's 26-yard touchdown catch with 24 seconds left last Sunday lifted San Diego to a 41-38 win over Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium.
Ajirotutu beat Chiefs' cornerback Sean Smith to the left side of the end zone and caught Philip Rivers' pass as he fell to the ground, representing the eighth combined lead change -- including seven in the second half -- between the AFC West rivals. It came after Dwayne Bowe's 5-yard touchdown catch at the other end had given the Chiefs a 38-34 lead with 1:22 left.
Alex Smith passed for 294 yards and three touchdowns for the Chiefs, who have lost two straight after going 9-0 to start the season for the first time in 10 years.
Jamaal Charles rushed for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries and Donnie Avery and Anthony Fasano had touchdown catches in the loss.
"It wasn't enough," said Smith. "We didn't do enough as a team to get it done, so it stings. It's all for naught. ... (But) you get better from it and you learn for the next game, or you can sit and sulk and not move past it. We're 9-2 with a lot of season left. A lot can happen."
Denver is also coming off a heartbreaking setback after Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 31-yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime, capping the largest comeback in Patriots history and lifting New England to a 34-31 decision over the Broncos at Gillette Stadium.
The Broncos built a 24-0 halftime lead thanks in large part to a sloppy first half from the New England offense, but Tom Brady led the Patriots on five straight scoring drives to turn the deficit into a seven-point advantage.
Manning managed just 150 yards and two scores with an interception on 19-of-36 passing for the Broncos and lost a 20-plus point lead for the first time in his career.
"It's disappointing," Manning admitted. "You had a chance to beat a good team at their place...hated the way that ended."
The Chiefs lead their all-time series with Denver by a 56-50 margin but the Broncos have won the past three encounters and seven of the last 10.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Kansas City's defense, which didn't allow more than 17 points in the opening nine games, has given up an average of 34 points during its two-game losing streak. And things don't figure to get much easier this time around because bookend pass-rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston both went down against San Diego.
Meanwhile, Denver's No. 1 ranked offense is amassing 451.4 yards per game and 39 points per contest. The Broncos have scored 429 points, the second-most by team through the first 11 games of a season in NFL history (New England, 442 in 2007), and Manning has passed for 3,722 yards, most ever through the first 11.
Houston has been diagnosed with a dislocated right elbow and will miss at least the next two or three weeks while, Hali is going to try to play against Denver on an ankle sprain. The teammates have combined for 20 sacks this season.
The Chiefs, of course, had amassed a league-high 36 sacks through nine games but couldn't get to Manning, who is just one touchdown shy of tying his team record of 37 passing scores set last season, in the first encounter.
Things figured to be different this time with the crowd at Arrowhead helping immensely. Without Houston and with a banged-up Hali, though, that might be out the window.
Manning has always combated his lack of speed and elusiveness with a lightning-quick release, along with the smarts to understand where blitzes are coming from and who the hot read is.
"I think (Manning's) been a guy that has maximized his abilities in every area," said Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio. "I think you look at mentally, physically -- the guy maxes out in everything he does. He's ultra-competitive. Getting the ball out, knowing where to go and all those things are a part of it. He's done it as well as anybody."
Despite the absence of All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, the Broncos have only allowed just 15 sacks. However, 10 of them have come in the past five games as Clady's replacement, journeyman Chris Clark, has struggled. At some point the cumulative effect of some of the hits Manning has been taking could add up and he has been slowed by an ankle injury.
The bigger elephant in the room for Denver, though, is Manning's play in the cold weather. He was clearly affected by the frigid temperatures in New England and just doesn't have the arm strength to cut through serious wind.
That means a lot of bubble screens, smoke routes and quick hitches, routes opposing defensive backs could figure out and start to jump. Kansas City is especially astute at that kind of thing and currently has the number one scoring defense in the NFL with five defensive touchdowns.
Long-term forecasts for Kansas City, though, are not showing terribly cold weather on the horizon so Manning should be off the hook this week.
The effectiveness of running back Knowshon Moreno also aids Manning. While not though of as a star on an offense which features players like Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Eric Decker, Moreno ranks fifth in the NFL with 1,334 rushing yards and is tied for fourth in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns since taking over as Denver's starting running back in Week 12 of the 2012 season.
The Chiefs' biggest advantage may be ball security, ranking first in the NFL with a plus-13 turnover ratio. Denver, on the other hand, is minus-3 in turnover differential.
Chiefs QB Alex Smith is a signal caller who certainly isn't explosive but is well-versed in what it takes to win in this league. Since 2011 Smith is 28-7-1 as a starter.
"They had good quarterbacks last year, but Alex Smith -- he's special," Broncos star pass rusher Von Miller said. "He brings a different element to the offense."
Kansas City's biggest offensive threat, however, remains dual-threat running back Jamaal Charles, who averages an AFC-best 122.1 scrimmage yards per game.
"To me he's one of the top three backs in the league with his speed and his vision for finding holes to rush up through there," Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said when discussing Charles.
The Broncos D has been nothing special this season but Miller is starting to come on, recording a season-high two sacks against the Pats, while veteran pass rusher Shaun Phillips leads the team with nine sacks.
The Broncos are riding a nine-game divisional win streak since Manning arrived and the veteran All-Pro is 10-1 all-time versus Kansas City. If styles truly make fights, this one was decided the minute Houston went down and the forecast came in for relatively balmy conditions for this time of the year in K.C.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 33, Chiefs 17
11/28 11:35:37 ET