If the Broncos play ... the Chiefs

January, 1, 2014
Jan 1
7:00
PM ET
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos will spend the rest of their postseason bye week cleaning up loose ends with some football self-examination. But they will also have to work through what-if scenarios along the way.

Overall, the Broncos were 3-3 this season against teams in the AFC's playoff field, with losses to the Indianapolis Colts, the New England Patriots and the San Diego Chargers.

With that in mind, here's a look at how they match up with each of their three possible divisional round opponents. Next up: The Chiefs.

How it happens: Chiefs beat the Colts on Saturday and the Cincinnati Bengals defeat the Chargers on Sunday.

Match game: Certainly NFL life is always about the matchups, but winning individual matchups, those 1-on-1 battles, has been a big part of both of the Broncos' wins against the Chiefs this season.

[+] EnlargeMontee Ball
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsA three-wide receiver set helped the Broncos' Montee Ball to his first 100-yard rushing game in the second meeting with the Chiefs.
Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has taken an aggressive approach against Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. But along the way the Broncos were able to create the matchups they wanted because of the way Sutton used his personnel in the secondary. Sutton chose to play it straight and did not flip his cornerbacks to keep the bigger Sean Smith on the Broncos' Demaryius Thomas.

That's fine, plenty of team choose not to flip their cornerbacks against the Broncos' high-end passing attack with the thought that Manning will just send the ball elsewhere even if they did move people around. But against the Chiefs it meant Manning and Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase could essentially create the matchup they wanted exactly when they wanted it by lining up Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker plenty over rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper.

Sutton also chose to double Wes Welker plenty in the middle of the field to try to take that avenue away from Manning, especially in the Dec. 1 game. The difference in the divisional round matchup would be tight end Julius Thomas.

Julius Thomas did not play in the December win in Kansas City so the Chiefs were able to limit Welker's impact to three catches for 38 yards. So, Thomas' presence changes things, especially as the Broncos continue to expand his role -- he has raised his level of consistency in recent weeks. It's the reason why Thomas will be an intriguing player to watch in any of the potential divisional round matchups for the Broncos, but his impact potential just might be the greatest against the Chiefs.

Make some room: Against the Broncos, the Chiefs played plenty of specialty looks on defense, usually the dime (six defensive backs). And that usually puts safety Eric Berry down toward the line of scrimmage lined up essentially as the Chiefs' weak side inside linebacker.

And there is a spot the Broncos would need to attack in the run game, but to do that they have to find a way to get Chiefs nose tackle Donatri Poe out of the way. It's why the Broncos' ability to run from the weak side, behind center Manny Ramirez and Zane Beadles, would help matters -- especially when they are in the five-man front in a three-wide receiver look with the tight end in the slot.

A two-tight end look could help matters with one down next to the tackle and the other lined up in the slot. It would potentially pull a linebacker out of the middle of the field, or at least a safety like Berry. But if an offense doesn't move Poe, it doesn't really matter what potential gaps are behind them because the ballcarrier doesn't get that far anyway.

The Broncos were cartainly committed to the idea as they ran the ball 36 and 31 times, respectively, against the Chiefs this season with rookie Montee Ball finishing out his first career 100-yard game in December. The majority of those carries came out of the three-wide receiver set for the Broncos, which put them in a position to run the ball against the Chiefs' dime look much of the time.

The Chiefs have made that work throughout the season against a variety of offensive sets because of the play in the defensive front, but if the Broncos carve out some space up front, there will usually be just one linebacker waiting at the second level with a host of defensive backs.

Keep the lid on: The Broncos have struggled with penalties for much of the season, but it was a particular problem against the Chiefs, with 13 and 10 penalties in the two meetings this season.

The 13-penalty outing Nov. 17 was particularly glaring because it included several non-contact penalties, including a misplaced taunting penalty from safety Duke Ihenacho after an incomplete pass on a second-and-8 play from the Broncos' 12-yard line in the second quarter. Not only did Ihenacho taunt Charles with the official nearby, he turned what would have been a third-and-8 at the 12 into first-and-goal at the Broncos' 6-yard line. The Chiefs scored a touchdown three plays later.

In that game the Broncos also had an encroachment penalty on defensive end Robert Ayers, a delay of game on rookie cornerback Kayvon Webster and a neutral zone infraction on Ayers. The games with the Chiefs were physical, hard-nosed affairs and the Broncos would have to play with a little more discipline in a third meeting than they showed in the first two.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesBroncos tight end Julius Thomas, who did not play against the Chiefs in December, has raised his level of consistency in recent weeks.
Stay in your lane: When the Chiefs made some running room against the Broncos defense this season, it was largely because Denver didn't quite get their run fits and they left a lane behind. And while it didn't always result in an issue against many offenses, the Chiefs don't need much room to get Jamaal Charles free so it usually only takes one stumble to do it.

There was the attempted spin move by rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams that left the gap for a 35-yard carry by Charles in the November game, or quarterback Alex Smith escaping for 46 rushing yards in December when the Broncos got a little too deep in the rush and allowed Smith an escape route.

Charles is always Job 1 against the Chiefs, but overall the Broncos simply can't afford mistakes in gap coverage that allow Charles or Smith to keep drives alive.

Stay in your lane II: Over the course of the season's second half the Broncos have had some uncharacteristic special teams bobbles. Whether it be Trindon Holliday mishandling a kick or lapses in coverage, the Broncos have not been themselves for much of the last two months.

That was no more evident than against the Chiefs. Kansas City's Dexter McCluster is likely the best punt returner, along with the Patriots' Julian Edelman, the Broncos faced this season. And while the Broncos kept McCluster in check in each meeting, Chiefs running back Knile Davis is the guy who dropped a 108-yard kickoff return on the Broncos in December.

The Broncos' coverage players are simply losing containment as they approach the returners and missing too many tackles once they get there.

Jeff Legwold

ESPN Denver Broncos reporter

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