Denver Broncos: Kansas City Chiefs

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC West

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
10:01
AM ET

Let’s turn back the clock, way back to, say, 2011.

John Fox is in his first season as coach of the Denver Broncos, and John Elway in his first season as the team’s top football executive. After five weeks, the Broncos are 1-4. Kyle Orton gets benched, the Broncos put Tim Tebow in at quarterback, and Denver goes 7-4 to finish 8-8 and win a tightly clustered AFC West on the basis of tiebreakers.

The San Diego Chargers also finished 8-8, as did the Oakland Raiders. The Kansas City Chiefs were 7-9.

All four teams piled together in a bit of a mediocrity club. Not too good, not too bad.

And then, in March 2012, the balance of power didn’t just shift, it was tilted by the weight of a future Hall of Famer when the Broncos signed Peyton Manning. The Broncos have followed with two more division titles, back-to-back 13-3 finishes and one Super Bowl appearance.

In all, the Broncos have gone 33-10 since moving Tebow and then Manning into the starting lineup. But the Broncos lost a Super Bowl by 35 points, looking physically overwhelmed while doing it, and Manning just turned 38. The clock is ticking on his storied career, and three teams with head coaches and general managers all hired since 2012 hope there is opportunity.

“You know they’re working their tails off to change things," Fox said. “We’re working hard to keep going, but your first goal always is to win the division; that’s the only guaranteed way to get in the tournament."

The Broncos were the most active of the four AFC West teams in free agency in recent weeks, but as Chargers coach Mike McCoy put it, “We’re grinding away. That’s the solution, just keep grinding."

The four writers who cover the AFC West for ESPN.com’s NFL Nation -- Paul Gutierrez in Oakland, Jeff Legwold in Denver, Adam Teicher in Kansas City and Eric D. Williams in San Diego -- offered their insights on closing the gap on the Broncos and some other key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which team is closest to catching the Broncos in the AFC West?



Paul Gutierrez: Is this a trick question? Sure, the Broncos excel at losing Super Bowls in blowout fashion like no one else this side of Fran Tarkenton's Minnesota Vikings. But when it comes to the division in which they reside, the Broncos got better defensively in free agency by adding DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib. Since the Chargers were the only ones in the AFC West to beat the Broncos last season and have had a better run than the Chiefs in free agency, I'll go with the Bolts. While Kansas City lost three starting offensive linemen, San Diego essentially stayed the course. Quarterback Philip Rivers enjoyed a renaissance season under first-year coach Mike McCoy and figures to spread his wings (and bolo ties) with a year of experience. As far as the Raiders are concerned, there are simply too many questions and new faces at this juncture to think they will make a quantum leap in improvement, though stranger things have happened. Think Tony Sparano and the 2008 Miami Dolphins, who improved to 11-5 a year after going 1-15. And, yes, Sparano is on Oakland's staff.

Jeff Legwold: Everyone in the division, including the Broncos, carries a significant question in tow this season. For the Chiefs, it's their secondary; for the Chargers, it's their offensive line; and for the Raiders, their search for a get-it-done quarterback has now landed on Matt Schaub. The Chiefs were closest in the standings last season, powered by their defense, but the Chargers were closest on the field, with a win over the Broncos in the regular season and a hard-fought loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chiefs return the guts of that defense, and even with the questions in the secondary, they are poised to duplicate a double-digit-win season in coach Andy Reid's second year. The Chargers played the Broncos tougher last season, and if Philip Rivers has another quality year, they will be in the playoff conversation. But they have largely sat out free agency with a draft-built approach. That puts them on a timetable to need one or two more drafts to be in position to win the division.

Adam Teicher: The Chargers finished last season in that spot, and though they lost offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, I don't see how much else has changed in that regard. The Chargers were competitive in their games against the Broncos last season, something the Chiefs and Raiders couldn't manage. San Diego also has the division's best quarterback and, yes, that includes Peyton Manning. The way the Chiefs finished last season, losing six of their last eight games, makes me wonder which way their program is headed. Their 9-0 start was a long time ago. The Raiders should be better than in 2013 but still haven't come far enough to be a serious part of this discussion. They had a huge pile of money to spend, but for the most part I don't agree with how they used it. While Matt Schaub is better at quarterback than the guys who played there for Oakland last season, he's still fourth among the four starters in the division.

Eric D. Williams: The Chargers offer the best challenge to Denver's throne in 2014. San Diego is the only AFC West team to defeat the Broncos since Peyton Manning's arrival in 2012. The Chargers held Denver's offense to 24 points a contest in three games last season, 14 points lower than the Broncos' NFL-best average of 38 points a game during the regular season. San Diego is the only team that returns its entire offensive line from 2013, and the defense should improve with the return of a healthy Dwight Freeney along with the development of young players like Shareece Wright, Jahleel Addae and Manti Te'o.


Second Down

The AFC West had three teams make the playoffs last season. Can it happen again?



Gutierrez: Sorry, can't see it happening this season. Besides the fact that the Broncos are still the class of the division, even if they lost Eric Decker and Wesley Woodyard, and the Chiefs and Chargers are stuck playing catch-up, the rest of the AFC's wild-card chasers -- the New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Baltimore Ravens -- won't be down for long. Plus, it's such a statistical anomaly for a division to gobble up three of the six playoff slots in a conference. Since the 2002 realignment, it's happened only five times -- in 2006 with the NFC East (Philadelphia, Dallas and the New York Giants), in 2007 with the AFC South (Indianapolis, Jacksonville and Tennessee) and the NFC East (Dallas, New York and Washington), in 2011 with the AFC North (Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) and last season with the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers. Then there's this: The AFC West next season plays the tough NFC West, which went a combined 42-22 last season, compared to the AFC West going 37-27. They will beat up on each other a bit, allowing other AFC teams to grab playoff berths.

Legwold: That's a tough sell. When the division had three teams make the postseason in 2013, it was because the Steelers, Ravens, Jets and Dolphins -- who finished 8-8 -- lost a spot on the final day of the regular season. For the second consecutive year, Miami has tried to buy improvement in free agency, the Jets waved the checkbook around, and the Steelers and Ravens continued to trust the draft-first formula that has served them well on the way to multiple Super Bowl wins. It's a stretch to think all four of those teams won't cross the .500 mark in 2014 or that somebody won't come out of the AFC South. NFL personnel evaluators continue to say Houston's roster isn't that of a 2-14 team and that, with the No. 1 pick in the draft, their turnaround could come quickly.

Teicher: It can, but it won't. That Denver, Kansas City and San Diego all made the playoffs last season was a factor of the AFC West teams getting some extremely favorable scheduling. AFC West teams played against teams from the AFC South and NFC East. Only two of those eight opponents finished with a winning record and included were games against three of the worst teams in the league (Jacksonville, Houston and Washington). They won't have such luck in 2014. The common opponents from outside the division include four teams that won 10 or more games last season (New England, Seattle, San Francisco and Arizona). So all three of last year's playoff teams from the AFC West will find it difficult to beat or even match their records from last season. Few if any gimmes are built into this year's schedule.

Williams: While I believe the AFC West will remain one of the most competitive divisions in pro football, three teams will not make the playoffs again. The Chargers needed several things to go their way on the final week of the regular season, including Kansas City kicker Ryan Succop missing a relatively easy 41-yard field goal, to sneak in as the final AFC wild-card team. Other teams like Houston, Pittsburgh and Tennessee should improve, making it tough for three teams from one division to get into the postseason for a second straight year.


Third Down

Peyton Manning is the obvious top choice at quarterback in the division. Which of the other current starters -- Philip Rivers, Alex Smith and Matt Schaub -- do you think will have the best 2014?



Gutierrez: The knee-jerk reaction is to go with Rivers, who, as mentioned above, experienced enough of a rebirth to be named the NFL's comeback player of the year by The Associated Press, an honor that usually goes to someone coming back from injury. But let's think outside of the box and put on our silver-and-black-tinted glasses. Schaub had a nightmarish season in Houston last year, with visions of pick-sixes dancing through his head. But if a change of scenery is all the doctor ordered -- and Darren McFadden stays healthy enough to make the play-action pass a devastating weapon for Schaub, and the Raiders' rebuilt offensive line gives him time, and a playmaking receiver emerges -- then Schaub might be the guy. That's a lot of ifs, but we're just talking here, right? I'm not saying that translates to wins, but with an offense tailored to his strengths and confidence, might Schaub be the second straight QB from the division to win a non-injury related comeback player of the year award?

Legwold: The Raiders were quick to pour on the optimism at the recent league meetings about Schaub's arrival and what he could mean to their offense, and the Chiefs believe Smith will be better in his second season with Andy Reid. But after Manning, Rivers is still the most accomplished passer among the other three, and he, too, will be better in the second season with McCoy. With former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt's departure to be the Tennessee Titans coach, Rivers is facing at least some transition, but with McCoy's presence and the promotion of Frank Reich from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator, it should be fairly seamless. If the Chargers can protect Rivers, they will benefit from the results.

Teicher: Rivers. He was rejuvenated in Mike McCoy's offensive system. It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact Whisenhunt's departure has on him. Smith had a strong finish last season, even if the Chiefs didn't. Things should run more smoothly for him in Year 2 in Andy Reid's system, but it's troubling that the Chiefs lost their best offensive lineman in left tackle Branden Albert and two other regulars on their line. They have yet to add to their meager collection of offensive threats, though I expect they will in the draft. Their inability to sign Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in free agency will haunt them. I have little in the way of expectations for Schaub in his first season with the Raiders. It's a bit much to ask him to thrive in his first year in a new system with unfamiliar teammates.

Williams: Rivers has the best chance to repeat his success from 2013 for one reason: continuity. The Chargers will return almost every starter from one of the best offenses in the NFL last season. San Diego added Donald Brown in free agency to bolster an already potent run game led by Ryan Mathews. Young playmakers Keenan Allen and Ladarius Green should get better. Look for San Diego to add another playmaker in the draft, along with a player or two to bolster an aging offensive line.


Fourth Down

What is the dark-horse free-agency move in the AFC West that will have the biggest impact?



Gutierrez: Seems to me that there have been few, if any, dark-horse signings in free agency; they've all been pretty big names, especially among the top three teams. Even the Raiders' signings have been relatively well-known names. Perhaps, then, the most surprising signing that could have an impact in the division is the guy who was thought to be long gone: Oakland running back Darren McFadden. When he's healthy and used to his skill set -- think early 2011, before a Lisfranc injury ended his season -- Run DMC looks like a league MVP candidate. With the zone-blocking scheme all but scrapped in Oakland, McFadden figures to benefit from the change back to a power-blocking mantra. The Raiders re-signed him to a relatively cheap, incentive-laden deal, so that qualifies as a dark-horse move. Whether he has a breakthrough season will determine if the signing is impactful enough to help decide the division.

Legwold: LaMarr Woodley will turn 30 in November and Justin Tuck turned 31 on March 29, but if the two have a little something left in the career tanks, then they can have an impact in Dennis Allen's defense with the Raiders. If not, well, then they are the first steps toward some salary-cap dead money when they can't play out their contracts. But overall, Emmanuel Sanders was the Broncos' last big splash in the opening days of free agency, and he's the guy who could make a significant jump in the Broncos offense. One of the league's better receivers in terms of yards after the catch, he is now with a quarterback whose greatest strength is getting the ball to players on short and intermediate routes in the best place to do the most with it. Sanders' 67 catches in 2013 were his career best, but his 11.0 yards per catch from '13 figures to jump with the opportunities he will get in the Broncos offense.

Teicher: This probably doesn't qualify as a dark-horse move, but when Sanders didn't sign with the Chiefs and instead joined the Broncos, it further tipped the balance of power in the division. Sanders would have been a nice fit in Kansas City's offense. His ability to line up in the slot or split wide would have given the Chiefs a fast receiver to use in a variety of ways. The Chiefs, for the time being at least, are without a proven slot receiver after losing Dexter McCluster to free agency. Their best hope at this point for that position is Weston Dressler, who was signed this year after putting up big numbers for several seasons in the CFL. Sanders, meanwhile, appears destined to catch 80 or more passes for better than 1,000 yards and several touchdowns as Eric Decker's replacement in Denver.

Williams: While some league observers consider San Diego signing Brown to a three-year, $10.4 million deal a reach because the team needs more immediate help in other areas, I believe the Chargers made a good decision for a couple of reasons. Brown is a known commodity because of general manager Tom Telesco's familiarity with the University of Connecticut product from their time together in Indianapolis. Brown is a perfect fit in San Diego's offense with his ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. Brown strengthens something the Chargers already do well: running the football. With Brown, Mathews and Danny Woodhead, San Diego has the most talented running back group in the AFC West.

 

Double Coverage: Broncos at Chiefs

November, 29, 2013
11/29/13
10:21
AM ET
Von Miller and Alex Smith USA Today SportsFirst place in the AFC West is on the line when Von Miller's Broncos meet Alex Smith' Chiefs Sunday.
Much has changed since the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos first squared off two weeks ago. The Chiefs, 27-17 losers to the Broncos on Nov. 17, have dropped another game since and have seen their defense collapse. Their two best pass-rushers, outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, are injured. Houston is unlikely to play and Hali's status also remains up in the air.

The Broncos, meanwhile, also collapsed last week, blowing a 24-point halftime lead and losing in overtime to the Patriots in New England. Both teams are 9-2, so first place in the AFC West is on the line.

Here, ESPN.com Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss Sunday's game.

Teicher: Jeff, given how some things have changed since the teams played a couple of weeks ago, would you expect Peyton Manning and the Broncos to change how they attack the Chiefs this time around?

Legwold: Adam, I wouldn't. They have stayed in their three-wide set through concerns about Manning's health, their pass protection and blitzing defenses. And they ran all but 10 plays out of the three-wide set against the Chiefs two weeks ago. They did try to run more against Kansas City than they had in previous games, particularly with Manning in the shotgun; they had 22 rushing attempts the last time they faced K.C. with Manning in the shotgun. They'll likely do the same, but will test the edges of the Chiefs' formation to see if the injuries have affected things there. They rushed for 280 yards against the Patriots this past Sunday, a total that was hidden in the loss, but if they can move the ball in the run game, the offense is that much more difficult to deal with.

With those injury concerns on defense for the Chiefs, would they have to take more chances to come after Manning?

Teicher: I would think so. They certainly came after Philip Rivers with a lot of different things in last Sunday's game. They just weren't effective. Rivers was very candid about things after the game, saying the Chargers emphasized having their backs help in pass protection against Houston and Hali before the injuries but they got away from that after Houston and Hali left the game. I would expect the Chiefs to change things up quite a bit against Manning this time: blitz some, play some coverage, maybe even mix in some zone. They haven't played much zone coverage all season but they may have no choice on Sunday. Their cornerbacks were horrible in coverage and the safeties often took bad angles to the receivers. The Chiefs allowed 228 yards after the catch.

Big game for Von Miller in New England the other night. I'm guessing it was his most productive of the season. He certainly didn't get much done against the Chiefs the last time. Was it a case of him taking advantage of favorable matchups against the Patriots or is it just a matter of getting that readjustment period out of the way?

Legwold: Likely a little of both. He was a terror in the first half as he forced a fumble to go with two sacks and a 60-yard fumble return for a score. He was the best player on the field in those opening minutes when the Broncos opened up a 17-0 lead that grew to 24-0 at halftime. He beat Patriots left tackle Nate Solder with both power and speed in those opening segments. But the Patriots picked up the pace on offense a bit in the second half, spreading things out more with some empty sets and forcing the Broncos to rush with fewer people at times. Miller had some quality rushes in the second half as he forced Brady to deliver the ball early on a smattering of occasions, but he did not sack Brady after the initial flourish and the Broncos didn't have a sack in the second half of regulation or overtime. Miller looked better -- consistently quicker, more explosive -- but he has yet to put together a full game like the Broncos want to see. In fact until the New England game Jack Del Rio had graded Miller's play as "OK." The Broncos need something consistently more than OK coming down the stretch.

After so many good things that happened during the 9-0 start, how have the Chiefs dealt with back-to-back losses?

Teicher: We're about to find out. I think the Chiefs are still stunned after losing their two top pass-rushers and a double-digit lead against the Chargers. They were certainly stunned after the game over how poorly their defense played. If there was something positive to come out of the Chargers game, it was that their offense was able to keep up. They scored five offensive touchdowns, topping their previous season high of three, and drove down the field for the go-ahead TD with about a minute and a half left. So they should have some confidence if Sunday's score climbs beyond a certain point. But between the injuries to Houston and Hali, an already sluggish pass rush, horrendous play in the secondary and the quality of the upcoming opponent, the Chiefs suddenly have a lot to sort through on defense.

Likewise, how confident will the Broncos be after coughing up a 24-point halftime lead in New England?

Legwold: Del Rio came right out of the gate Monday, just hours after the team had landed at 5 a.m. or so Denver time, in full keep-your-composure mode, essentially saying his message to the players was to avoid the "we're the greatest" chatter they've heard after wins as well as avoiding the "we're the worst" feeling after a loss like Sunday's. They took some solace in Manning putting together a big-time drive late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 31-31. After that they slugged it out in overtime until a special-teams gaffe gave the Patriots the field position they needed for the win. There may have been more of a hangover if they had an opponent other than the Chiefs on the schedule this week. The potential to position themselves for the division title against the Chiefs got their attention quickly. They need a big game from Manning, however. He sets the tone for this group and Sunday night was a struggle for the passing games at times in the bitter cold.

The Chiefs challenged the Broncos' wide receivers plenty in man coverage two weeks ago. Given how the past two games have gone, would you expect them to do that again?

Teicher: That's how the Chiefs have defended all season and how they are built, so it's difficult to picture them going in a drastically different direction on Sunday. Just two weeks ago, the Chiefs thought they had the perfect big, physical cornerbacks in Sean Smith and Marcus Cooper to match up with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and the right slot cover guy in Brandon Flowers to match up with Wes Welker. Maybe what they saw two weeks ago in Denver or last week against the Chargers was enough to change their minds about how to best handle Manning and his receivers. But I doubt it. They might mix some things a little more than last time but I seriously doubt we'll see a wholesale change.

Double Coverage: Chiefs at Broncos

November, 14, 2013
11/14/13
10:00
AM ET
The Denver Broncos (8-1) are the highest-scoring team in the league, so much so that not only are they the only team in the league averaging at least 40 points a game -- 41.2 after nine games -- but they are the only team in the league averaging at least 30 points a game.

The Kansas City Chiefs (9-0) have the league's best record, remain the NFL's only undefeated team and lead the league in several major defensive categories, including fewest points allowed per game (12.3), sacks (36) and turnover margin (plus-15).

And after the two have feasted on many of the league's downtrodden over the season's first 10 weeks -- they are a combined 17-0 against teams that do not currently have a winning record this season -- they will finally get down to some serious AFC West business Sunday night in Sports Authority Field at Mile High. ESPN.com Chiefs team reporter Adam Teicher and Broncos team reporter Jeff Legwold break down this game.

Legwold: Adam, let's get right to it: How do you think the Chiefs will come after Peyton Manning, who has been battered over the past four games?

Teicher: I would think Kansas City would test Denver's protection and Manning's ankle right off the bat. The Chiefs still lead the league in sacks, but they've cooled off considerably. They have just one sack in their past two games. On the back end, the Chiefs feel they have the corners who can match up with Denver's big receivers. They signed 6-foot-3 Sean Smith as a free agent from Miami in the offseason in large part so they could have a cornerback who can look Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker in the eye. We all remember how Manning picked apart Kansas City's two 5-9 corners last season. Smith is big and physical and runs well enough to stay with either receiver. The Chiefs picked rookie Marcus Cooper off waivers from San Francisco at the start of the season, and he has been a real find. At 6-2, Cooper is also capable of matching up with Thomas or Decker. The Chiefs also have Brandon Flowers to cover Wes Welker in the slot. The tight end, Julius Thomas, could be more of a problem for the Chiefs. Strong safety Eric Berry has done a nice job of covering the tight end this season, but Thomas is a size mismatch.

With that in mind, how is Chris Clark doing at left tackle for injured Ryan Clady and how equipped is he to deal with the Chiefs' combination of pass-rushers that includes Justin Houston and Tamba Hali?

Legwold: At the time, folks were looking at the winless Jacksonville Jaguars as one of the biggest underdogs in league history when they came to Denver last month. But it was the Jaguars who gave defenses a glimmer of hope. They were more aggressive in attacking the Broncos' protection schemes, especially when Denver was in its favored three-wide set, and got physical with the Broncos' receivers. People have followed suit as Manning has progressively taken more punishment and a long line of defensive backs have tried the rough stuff against the Broncos' wideouts. That said, the Broncos have remained in their three-wide set much of the time, which often leaves Clark or right tackle Orlando Franklin working the edge solo. The Broncos are far more comfortable letting Clark do that because he has quality movement skills, but he doesn't have Clady's recovery skills -- few do -- and, when a rusher gets the corner, it's often difficult for Clark to get himself back in the play. Hali would give him more trouble because Hali never really stops working back to the quarterback and has worked more effectively to the inside from time to time.

I know folks haven't really talked on a national scale about Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, but what has his role been in their 9-0 start?

Teicher: He isn't the reason the Chiefs are 9-0, but Smith hasn't messed up a good thing. One key to their defensive success this season is that the Chiefs haven't put their defense in many bad situations, and much of that has been Smith taking good care of the ball. He has only four interceptions. An underrated factor in his play has been his running ability. Sometimes through scrambling and sometimes by design or off the option, Smith has been able to run to make many big plays for Kansas City at crucial times. That said, Smith needs to play better. He's completing fewer than 60 percent of his passes, and he's capable of much better. He completed 70 percent for the 49ers last season. The Chiefs are scoring touchdowns on only 48 percent of their trips inside the red zone, and Smith deserves at least some of the blame.

The Chiefs are allowing 5 yards per carry, and, although a lot of that damage has been done by scrambling quarterbacks, they've still been vulnerable at times against the run. Do you think the Broncos will make more frequent use of their running game against Kansas City?

Legwold: Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase has his roots in Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" offense -- Martz tutored Gase in stints in Detroit and San Francisco -- and that offense always had a hefty run component. The Broncos would like to run more and more efficiently, if for no other reason than to protect Manning better. That said, they ran just 22 times Sunday against a Chargers team that tried to play keep-away on offense for much of the day. But the real impact of their run is when they get their play-action going. Manning was 9 of 9 passing for 187 yards and three touchdowns on play-action plays in San Diego. The Broncos have leaned on Knowshon Moreno more and more of late as their two young running backs -- Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman -- haven't always handled things the way the team would like them to. Denver wanted more of a rotation, but the gap in performance between Moreno and the other two backs has made Moreno the go-to guy. Ball has gotten more carries of late, but the Broncos figure to gauge the Chiefs' defense by pounding away at it a bit. But nose tackle Dontari Poe will be a tough matchup inside, especially when Denver runs the ball out of a three-wide set with Manning in the shotgun.

The Broncos have plenty of speed on defense, but how much do you expect the Chiefs to try to muscle up and run it at them?

Teicher: That strategy makes sense on a lot of levels, not the least of which is that, if the Chiefs are successful running the ball, they'll burn some clock and keep Denver's offense on the sideline. But Kansas City's play calling has been puzzling at times this season. The Chiefs have attempted a lot of passes for a team that has spent a lot of time in the lead, and I don't expect Andy Reid to change his methods just because he's calling plays against the Broncos. That approach is somewhat problematic for the Chiefs, as well. They've squeezed about as much from Jamaal Charles as they reasonably can. He already leads the Chiefs in rushing yardage and receptions. Kansas City doesn't seem to trust either of its other backs, Knile Davis and Cyrus Gray. So, even more of the burden would go to Charles if the Chiefs rely more on their running game against the Broncos.

Everybody knows about Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker. But tight end Julius Thomas seems to have come out of nowhere. Is his development a surprise, or did the Broncos see it coming?

Legwold: Many defensive coaches will say they can deal with three targets in an offense, that there are ways to double-team, or at least have help in the area, against three primary targets in the passing game if things are done right. But a fourth player who can consistently win one-on-one matchups stretches a defense thin and becomes an issue. That's what Julius Thomas has been, especially in the scoring zone. He is tied for the team lead -- with Demaryius Thomas and Welker -- with nine red zone catches and is a matchup dilemma for linebackers and for safeties because of his size and speed. The Broncos always saw flashes of this in offseason workouts -- Julius Thomas was one of the regulars at the on-your-own workouts Manning had right after he signed in 2012, so he meshed with Manning quickly -- and in training camp, but this is the first season he has been healthy enough to show it on game days. As you would expect from a player who had just one season of college football after his hoops career was over at Portland State, he has struggled at times with some of his blocking responsibilities, especially in some of his footwork. But he has worked to get better, and, in the passing game, he already is just the kind of receiver they Broncos had hoped he would be.

In the Chiefs' offense, Charles has already had so many touches in the first nine games. Can he stay healthy at this pace, and what effect would it have on the offense if he doesn't?

Teicher: That to me is the key to Kansas City's season. Charles is the Chiefs' MVP, in my opinion. He's only about 200 pounds, so he's not built to carry the workload the Chiefs have given him. He was in for all but one offensive snap of their last game in Buffalo, for instance. They need to find ways to lighten his load because the odds are he will wear down, but the fact is no one else has stepped forward to be a consistent playmaker. The options at running back are Davis and Gray, and the Chiefs aren't comfortable with either one. Kansas City drafted Davis in the third round for this very purpose, but he's been a prolific fumbler who, at least early in the season, had trouble grasping the playbook. The coaches say he has made progress; if true, he needs to play more. He's big and fast and is one player the Chiefs can reasonably grow their offense around.

Some of the numbers suggest the Broncos are pushovers defensively. But how many of the passing yards and points they give up stem from the fact that teams are usually desperate to play catch-up against Denver?

Legwold: Initially, at least through the first month of the season, that was certainly the case. However, the 506 yards Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo put up Oct. 6 came in a tight game the Broncos trailed 14-0 early on. The Broncos have had flashes of being a game-changing, speed defense, but then they will have lapses at times, and opposing quarterbacks have consistently pounced on those for big plays. Denver already has surrendered more pass plays of at least 20 yards (43) than it did all of last season (38). Certainly, the Broncos missed Von Miller during his six-game suspension, and Champ Bailey has played in just two games so far because of a foot injury, but they have not consistently pressured quarterbacks when the game is still in the balance as they did last season. Denver had several late-game sacks in 20-point wins that aren't quite as valuable as a second-quarter sack to stop a drive in a three-point game. It can potentially be far better, and, if the team wants to go deep into the postseason, the Broncos will have to reach that potential.

Overall, in all that has gone right for the Chiefs in the 9-0 start, how big an impact has Reid had on all of that?

Teicher: This sounds simple, but Reid brought a professionalism and instilled the attitude that the players are individuals and should be treated like men. That was a huge change from the way Kansas City had been run under the previous general manager, Scott Pioli. Then, the Chiefs were run like a circus. Different people had different agendas and were pulling in different directions. Reid walked in the door with an impressive résumé and ended all of that. Players were tired of the losing and the constant paranoia and being treated like kids, and so, when Reid -- with his history of success -- arrived, they were willing to listen and follow. He got players to put aside personal goals for the greater good. It certainly helped his cause that the Chiefs haven't lost yet. If they had been losing from the start, players might have already bailed on him.

Kansas City has been solid on special teams, but Denver's return specialist looks like he's the real deal. Give us a little scouting report on Trindon Holliday as a punt and kickoff returner.

Legwold: Holliday might be one of the better waiver claims the Broncos have ever had. In 20 games with the team, including a playoff game since being claimed five games into the 2012 season, Holliday has six return touchdowns: three punt returns for scores and three kickoff returns for scores. Holliday is just 5-foot-5 and graciously listed at 170 pounds, but the eight-time track All-American at LSU is a football player who just happened to have run, and been very good at, track. He has an inherent toughness about him that enabled him to play running back at LSU and a fearlessness with the ball in his hands. And then there's the speed -- Bailey called him the fastest player he has ever had as a teammate -- and Holliday was the NCAA 100 meters champion in a field that included Jacoby Ford. Now, he can be an adventure handling the ball at times, but he has worked hard to improve and the Broncos let him field more punts deep in their own territory this year than they did last season. Teams have taken to kicking away from him of late, but, in his short tenure with Denver, he already has changed some games.

That's a look at this week's matchup, enjoy the game.

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