NFL Preview - Denver (3-5) at Kansas City (4-4)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Kansas City Chiefs head coach Todd Haley believed his team "didn't have much in the tank" during last week's loss to the previously- winless Miami Dolphins at Arrowhead Stadium.
Haley could have been right after the Chiefs came off a short week that followed their fourth straight win after starting the year 0-3 and last in the AFC West. Kansas City crawled its way back to the top of the division standings and luckily entered this week still there after both San Diego and Oakland lost last Sunday.
The Chiefs, now a half-game back of the Raiders after Oakland bested the Chargers on Thursday, will entertain the other member of the AFC West when they take on the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon in the team's final game of three straight as the host. Kansas City will face the Broncos for the first time this season and is coming off an embarrassing 31-3 loss to Miami that left Haley wondering about the week's preparation leading up to the challenge.
"I'm not making excuses for the guys, but we probably did try to do too much during the week, which they just weren't physically capable of handling it," Haley said in his press conference. "I don't want to take anything away from Miami and how they were prepared and played the game throughout."
Kansas City scored just three points for the second time this season, the last time coming in a Week 2 loss at Detroit, and played poorly versus the Dolphins after a taxing Monday night overtime win over San Diego. The Chiefs had eight interceptions in their previous two games but did not post any last week.
Whether Haley failed to have his team properly prepared or not, the Chiefs appeared to overlook winless Miami for a rough stretch ahead. Sunday's matchup with Denver is just the start of a bevy of games against tough opponents such as New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago, the New York Jets and Green Bay in succession.
Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel was sacked five times last week and never got a rhythm going against the Dolphins' defense. Kansas City also turned the ball over on downs twice inside Miami's five-yard line.
Perhaps the only silver lining in the lopsided defeat was that both the Raiders and Chargers lost last week to prevent Kansas City from losing ground. The Chiefs are the defending division champions and their head coach knows playing well this weekend against Denver is vital.
"Our guys have to recharge and we have got to get ready for this Sunday, because it is now the biggest game of the year for us," Haley said.
Denver may not have put all of its eggs in the Tim Tebow basket just yet, but making the offense more conducive to his skill set and experience level could be the start of something for the Orange and Blue.
The Broncos made several adjustments to the offense for Tebow last week, who responded in the team's 38-24 win over the rival Raiders with 124 yards passing and two touchdowns while rushing for 118 yards on 12 carries. Tebow bounced back from a brutal performance versus Detroit and was often lined up in a new read-option formation in which he teamed up with running back Willis McGahee to send Denver to its second win in three tries since its bye week.
McGahee, who missed last week's 45-10 loss to the Lions with a broken hand, carried the ball 20 times for 163 yards and two touchdowns. He said afterwards he wasn't big on the read-option scheme, but got used to it.
"At the beginning, I wasn't too happy with the read-option because it really wasn't doing anything until I learned how to run it," McGahee said. "I just told coach [John Fox] I was going to change certain steps and different things to the play, and he was like, 'OK, go ahead.'
"When I realized it was working, I kind of got back in love with the read- option."
Denver racked up 299 yards on the ground against the Raiders and erased a 10- point deficit at halftime. The defense still needs some tinkering, though, as the unit has surrendered at least 24 points in four of the past five games and 69 combined over the last two weeks.
At 3-5, the Broncos are just 1 1/2 games off the pace in the AFC West race, though the schedule gets tougher from here with the Chiefs, Jets and Chargers next in line.
Kansas City holds a 55-46 lead in its all-time series with Denver, with the two AFC West rivals having split their annual home-and-home set in each of the past three seasons. The Chiefs registered a 10-6 win over the Broncos at Arrowhead Stadium last December, avenging a 49-29 setback in Denver during Week 10 of the 2010 campaign. The Broncos did rout the Chiefs by a 44-13 score in Kansas City in 2009, but have left with a loss in six of their last eight stops at Arrowhead Stadium.
The two former AFL franchises have met just once in the postseason since the 1970 merger, with the Broncos claiming a 14-10 victory in Kansas City during a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff.
Denver's John Fox has won both his previous encounters with the Chiefs as a head coach, both of which took place during his tenure with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-10 and includes a 28-17 decision at Arrowhead Stadium in 2004. Haley owns a 2-2 lifetime record against the Broncos and will be going head-to-head with Fox for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Tebow (536 passing yards, 6 TD, 1 INT) was sacked seven times and had two interceptions returned for touchdown two weeks ago against Detroit, forcing an unidentified Lions defender to criticize the Broncos for having the former University of Florida savior under center. The coaches deemed it necessary for a playbook alteration, and Tebow followed suit by protecting the football and giving the Raiders more problems than they could handle. It's unknown what type of offense will show up in Kansas City, though it's assumed the team will stay the course and gradually add to Tebow's plate in future weeks. Tebow did not commit any turnovers against Oakland, and Fox said this week he will try to incorporate more of the pass with the running load and believes when the time is right Tebow will have no issues with being more multi-dimensional instead of just a running threat. McGahee (623 rushing yards, 3 TD) was a huge threat last Sunday, as the veteran addition had the best game of his short-lived Broncos career. He found the end zone for the first time since Week 2 and posted his fourth 100-yard rushing game of the season. Eric Decker (33 receptions, 6 TD) led the way for the Broncos' receivers with 47 yards and a score on three catches last week and is Denver's top pass-catching threat. Fellow wideout Eddie Royal returned a punt 85 yards for a score against Oakland and is third on the team with 14 receptions.
Chiefs linebacker and leading tackler Derrick Johnson (62 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) stated the obvious after the loss to Miami, saying that the team has to do much better on defense. He vowed to bounce back and have a better week against the Broncos, and division games do mean so much more than the rest. Kansas City's defense has been inconsistent this season and ranks 19th against the rush (120.2 ypg) and 21st in both passing yards allowed (250.5 ypg) and total yards given up (370.8 ypg). Denver just ran all over the Raiders with their new-look offense, while the Chiefs permitted 351 total yards against Miami, including 107 on the ground. It's unknown if its 3-4 scheme matches up well to the Broncos' read-option offense, but it seems as if the linebackers have to prevent Tebow and McGahee from gaining the outside edge. Inside linebackers Jovan Belcher (44 tackles) and Johnson can only hope the front three can cause enough havoc up front to allow them to roam free in the middle. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali (35 tackles) leads the team with six sacks, while cornerback Brandon Flowers (37 tackles) is tops with four interceptions. Forcing turnovers is a must for this week.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Cassel (1,620 passing yards, 9 TD, 9 INT) did not throw a touchdown pass or have an interception last week and passed for 253 yards to earn a 71.8 rating. After three straight weeks of a quarterback rating 100 or higher earlier in the year, Cassel hasn't been able to be as precise over the past three contests and owns just one touchdown pass in that span. The Chiefs came into the game having allowed 13 sacks all season, tied for sixth-best in the league, but have been a mediocre passing team and may not match up well with a Denver defense that harassed Oakland's pass attack all afternoon last Sunday. Kicker Ryan Succop, the hero in a Monday night win over the Chargers, put the Chiefs on the board first with a 43-yard field goal against Miami, but that was it as far as the offense was concerned. Running back Jackie Battle (342 rushing yards, 1 TD) has nested into a starting role and posted 40 yards on 14 carries last week. It was his lowest total since running for 22 yards in Week 4 versus Minnesota, before he became the feature back. Kansas City must get Battle going early to keep pressure off of Cassel, who was second in rushing yards with 38 in the recent defeat. It must have been difficult for Kansas City to cope with the loss after not committing a turnover. Steve Breaston (29 receptions, 450 yards, 2 TD) had 115 yards on seven catches last week -- one more than leading receiver Dwayne Bowe (39 receptions, 636 yards, 4 TD) , who ended with 88 yards on six receptions. Bowe hasn't caught a touchdown pass in three straight games after leading the NFL with 15 in 2010.
The Broncos were prepared for Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer, who was intercepted three times -- including twice by future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey. The veteran's first two interceptions of the season catapulted him to the team lead in that category. The Broncos' 4-3 defense showed holes a few times, however, as Oakland was able to compile 416 yards of offense with 316 of those coming through the air. Bowe and Breaston both have speed, but Bowe's size and power will give the Broncos fits. Jacoby Ford of the Raiders burned Denver for 105 yards and a score a week ago. Cornerback Chris Harris (30 tackles) had the team's other interception last week and led the Broncos with 11 tackles. End Elvis Dumervil (11 tackles, 2 sacks) posted 1 1/2 sacks against the Raiders and leading tackler Wesley Woodyard noticed from his position nearby at linebacker that Dumervil's success gets the entire defense going. The Broncos ran a coverage-rush scheme and Bailey is a huge supporter, saying when the front line collapses the pocket and the secondary is covering their man then Denver will be a tough out. Even though Palmer was able to throw for more than 300, yards, the Broncos managed to break up eight passes and get three picks. Cassel may have trouble avoiding the turnover bug on Sunday if Denver plays like it did last week.
KEYS TO THE GAME
How will the read-option fare this time around for Tebow and the Denver offense? It passed with flying colors against the Raiders, but the Chiefs have had a week to study and prepare.
The Chiefs' offensive line has managed to protect Cassel for most of this season, and they're hoping last week's poor performance was just an aberration. Denver has a few missiles aimed at Kansas City's front line in rookie linebacker Von Miller and Dumervil. Miller leads the squad with seven sacks and has at least one in all but two games.
Denver should feel somewhat confident in trying to establish the passing game early and only have to watch what Dolphins backup-turned-starter Matt Moore did to the Chiefs to boost their spirits. Moore was thrust under center only because Chad Henne was injured but threw for 244 yards and three scores. Moore entered the season with about as much regard as Tebow, which was very little.
Both teams are still alive in the AFC West, but wouldn't be in other divisions around the league. The Chiefs had more than enough time to erase the memories of losing to a winless Miami team and get ready for a confident Tebow and the Broncos entering Arrowhead Stadium. Kansas City, which became the first team since Pittsburgh in 2000 to start the season 0-3 and then win its next four games, will need a robust outing from Cassel to get back into the win column. Cassel has to be unhappy with his recent performance and will redeem himself Sunday at home.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 20, Broncos 13
11/11 09:23:04 ET