Broncos need win to stay in AFC’s top spot
This one isn’t for all the marbles.
But it is for all the aggies, cat’s eyes, oilies, swirlies, steelies, opaques, bonkers and poppers in the bag — and that’s a bunch.
Win it and the Denver Broncos effectively go up two games on the Kansas City Chiefs in the race for the AFC West title and the top seed in the AFC playoffs. Denver would be 10-2 and own two tiebreaking wins over the Chiefs, who would drop to 9-3.
The Broncos have on tap the final four weeks of the season Tennessee and San Diego at home, then Oakland and Houston on the road, not exactly a mine field.
The Chiefs have three of four games left on the road, at Washington, Oakland and the season finale at San Diego, with their only home matchup against playoff-bound Indianapolis.
Lose this one, however, and the Broncos would not only fall behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, but also would fall back into the wild-card spot and one way or another, likely face another trip to New England in the playoffs.
That’s what today’s tilt in Kansas City means.
Just so you don’t fret unnecessarily, the weather forecast for today on the Great Plains is for a high in the 50s, no snow and very light winds.
That makes the “Can Peyton Manning Play in the Cold?” question moot for now.
The big question for both teams: Who can play? Starters for both teams are dropping like so many gray cottonwood leaves.
Denver lost starting defensive lineman Kevin Vickerson last week to a dislocated hip. He was at his most-disruptive self just as he went down, pressuring the passer and stopping runs better than ever.
He will be replaced by rookie Sylvester Williams — literally a huge question mark.
Also at risk of being significantly slowed is running back Knowshon Moreno, he of 224 rushing yards last week in that dreadful loss to the Patriots, and tight end Julius Thomas, who has 10 touchdown catches on the season. Moreno practiced Friday and is listed as probable.
Denver also lost starting free safety Rahim Moore two weeks ago for the remainder of the regular season.
The Broncos may get a boost in the return of Champ Bailey from a foot injury that has limited him to action in two games. If he plays, even as a fifth back in certain situations — and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is on the field full time after sustaining a shoulder injury last week (he should be), the Broncos match up more than adequately against the Chiefs receivers.
Moreno, who has a badly bruised ankle, is a key to this one because he doesn’t fumble. The rest of the running backs do. If Moreno can’t go, Manning might never hand off.
Thomas on the field is also a big factor, with Manning having a Total Quarterback Rating of 32 when he’s not on the field, 79.4 when he is.
The Chiefs also have one big hole to fill because of an injury to outside linebacker and pass-rusher extraordinaire Justin Houston, out with a dislocated elbow. His partner in crime from the other side, Tamba Hali, also missed the second half of last week’s loss to San Diego with a sprained ankle. He is expected to play, but could be slowed.
Two weeks ago, Denver’s Chris Clark held him without a sack when he was healthy.
Yes, these two teams did play two weeks ago (a 27-17 Denver win) and not much, save the injury situation, can change in that time frame.
The one thing we will notice is that the Chiefs, because of the slowed pass rush and some very ineffective play on the corners, have started to open up their offense, allowing or even pushing starting quarterback Alex Smith to go downfield more often.
Denver slowed Chiefs big threat, Jamaal Charles, holding him to 78 yards rushing two weeks ago and will have to do that again. The Chiefs give him the ball one way or another about 40 percent of the time.
If Rodgers-Cromartie can play on one corner and Bailey returns even on obvious passing downs, they will turn the tide defensively in this fair-weather matchup. If Smith is forcing the ball downfield, interceptions will come.
Manning’s ankles are slowly healing and he should return to form after several off performances against KC’s suddenly disheveled defense. Philip Rivers of San Diego put up nearly 400 yards last week in Kansas City against the Chiefs. Manning will do the same.
I’ll take my 9-2 record picking with or against the Broncos and say Arrowhead will be quieted as the sun sets in the West: Denver 37, Kansas City 24.