NFL Preview - Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Denver Broncos have gotten an excellent return so far on their investment in quarterback Peyton Manning.
Who the answer is under center for the Kansas City Chiefs remains a mystery, though it will be Brady Quinn getting the next crack at turning things around.
Manning looks to lead the Broncos to a sixth straight victory and a bit closer to a second consecutive AFC West title on Sunday against a Chiefs club that is still looking to give its frustrated fan base their first home victory of the season.
Despite the presence of the popular Tim Tebow, the Broncos inked Manning to a five-year deal worth $96 million and then later dealt Tebow to the New York Jets. The decorated Manning has rebounded from missing all of the 2011 season due to injury -- leading to the end of his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts -- and guided the Broncos to a 7-3 mark through 10 games. That has them three games up on the second-place San Diego Chargers, who Denver bested 30-23 this past weekend.
Manning threw for 270 yards with three touchdown passes, shaking off a first- quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown. Denver moved to 3-0 against its division and has set a club record by scoring at least 30 points in each contest of its five-game winning streak.
The loss wasn't without cost as running back Willis McGahee exited in the second quarter after taking a helmet hit to his right knee. Head coach John Fox said on Monday that McGahee has a ligament tear that does not need surgery, but reports suggest that the back could miss anywhere from 6-to-8 weeks.
Ronnie Hillman got most of the work after McGahee exited and he will help to shoulder the load along with Lance Ball and Knowshon Moreno. Hillman ran for 43 yards on 12 carries, while Ball logged 35 yards on six rush attempts.
"Lance Ball stepped in. Ronnie Hillman did a good job. We were shorthanded there," noted Fox. "We even had emergency scenarios in case something happened to one of those guys. That's what happens in football games -- Willis goes down and both of those guys did very good jobs."
Denver, which is trying to record a six-game win streak for a second season in a row, has won six of its last 10 versus Kansas City in what has been a tight series as of late.
The division rivals have split their two-game season series in eight of the last nine years and the Chiefs have won 12 of their last 17 at home versus the Broncos.
"I've played in Arrowhead [Stadium] a number of times -- never as part of a [AFC West] division game, but I've played in a playoff game there and against some good Kansas City teams in Arrowhead, and it's a tough place to play. I just throw these records out the window in the division," said Manning.
Kansas City, though, has yet to win in five home games in 2012 and is coming off a 28-6 setback to the visiting Cincinnati Bengals this past Sunday.
Matt Cassel got the start and was 8-of-16 passing for just 93 yards in the first half before head coach Romeo Crennel opted to start Quinn in the second half. He didn't fare much better, going 9-of-14 passing for 95 yards. The duo didn't turn the ball over and was sacked three times, but the Chiefs still stumbled to their seventh loss in a row.
"I expected us to do better than we did," Crennel said. "We couldn't move the ball offensively so I changed the quarterback and tried to generate some offense that way, but it really wasn't enough and so that's why the score is what it is."
Crennel announced on Wednesday that Quinn, who spent the previous two seasons with Denver but did not play in a single game, will start against his former team this weekend with Cassel as the backup.
Quinn figures to have a tough task if wide receiver Dwayne Bowe can't play due to a neck injury suffered versus the Bengals that held him out of the second half and had him limited on Wednesday.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Denver ranks just 19th in the NFL with 105.3 rushing yards per game, with McGahee amassing 731 yards and four touchdowns on 167 carries.
With the run not being as vital to the Broncos' third-ranked offense, Manning and company should be able to overcome the loss of McGahee, who was placed on injured reserve with designation to return on Wednesday. But the trio of Hillman, Ball and Moreno will still need to produce otherwise space for receivers Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Brandon Stokley could disappear quickly.
"We're counting by committee anyways. In the game (Sunday), all three of them played," Fox said of his ground game. "I think most every game this year, three of them have played. That won't change. Next week, it'll be more than likely Knowshon instead of Willis."
"We all have to step up and do our parts now," added the rookie Hillman. "Anybody could be an option now so we're all just going to come together and play ball."
Fox can afford to roll the dice with his running backs thanks to Manning, who has thrown for 2,975 yards this season with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions while completing 68.5 percent of his passes. With his efforts versus the Chargers, Manning is on the verge of passing Dan Marino (13) for the second-most 3,000-yard passing games in NFL history and is just 31 completions shy of moving past Marino's 4,967 for the second-most in league history.
Crennel wishes he was getting half of the production from his quarterbacks.
Cassel began the season as the starter, but it was Quinn who got the call in Week 6 versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quinn then started two weeks later following the bye versus the Oakland Raiders, but suffered a concussion early in the game and wasn't cleared to play until right before his most recent performance.
Crennel was looking to provide a spark by going with Quinn and hopes that will be the case this weekend.
"That's the thing, to try to give him enough time to try to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish when I made the move, was to try to change the dynamic of the team," Crennel said of starting Quinn. "Then, he had his injury and wasn't able to fulfill it, so now that he's cleared and he's back healthy, give him that opportunity to do that. We'll see how it plays out."
Cassel has thrown six touchdown passes to 12 interceptions for a QB rating of 66.7, while Quinn's rating stands at 52.9 thanks to three picks without a TD pass.
Bowe is Kansas City's top receiver with 49 receptions for 626 yards with three touchdowns. His possible absence for this game would make Quinn's job a lot harder.
Of course, the Chiefs still have the AFC's top ground game thanks to Jamaal Charles, who has logged 821 yards on 172 carries with three touchdowns. He ranks fourth in the conference with 82.1 rushing yards per game and in a Jan. 3, 2010 meeting with the Broncos ran for a career-high 259 yards with two scores.
Charles will have to get passed Denver's talented group of linebackers, led by strong-side starter Von Miller, the AFC's leader in sacks with 13. He has totaled 45 tackles on the year and forced two fumbles in the win over the Chargers, giving him four on the season.
Outside linebacker Wesley Woodyard leads the Broncos with 88 tackles and came up with an interception versus San Diego.
"We're starting to play technique-sound defense," said Miller. "I think that's what's working for us. There are a lot of good teams in the NFL, high-powered offenses. They're going to make plays. You've got to keep taking it one play at a time."
For the Chiefs, linebacker Tamba Hali has logged 8 1/2 sacks in his career versus the Broncos, including three in a home performance on Dec. 6, 2009.
The hardest part for Fox and Manning this weekend may be getting the team to stay focused on the task at hand an not look past the Chiefs. The experienced duo knows what is at stake and will do their best to keep Denver in the now, knowing a loss will just make things harder for the club down the road.
"In this league you're two games away from disaster. All that we're doing is looking one week at a time and if we continue to win, when the season's over, we'll know," said Fox of taking control of the division.
For the Chiefs, the challenge remains getting back into the win column and calming the passion of the fans, who have begun to turn on this current edition of the franchise.
"Everybody is frustrated about losing -- players, coaches, fans, owners, everybody," noted Crennel. "What we want or what we need is, we need to try to win a game to make us feel better, give us a little confidence, and then if you win one, then maybe we can win another one. That's the hard part of our situation, where we are."
While the Chiefs appear headed towards an offseason in which the quarterback position must again be addressed, the front office can at least take some notes on the attributes that make Manning so successful. He's likely to give them a nice showcase this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 31, Chiefs 13
11/22 08:52:49 ET