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NFL Preview - Denver (7-4) at Kansas City (3-8)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - If Josh McDaniels had gotten his way some nine months ago, Matt Cassel would be the quarterback for the Denver Broncos today. Instead, the once-prized pupil will play the role of nemesis when the Kansas City Chiefs host their longtime rivals this Sunday in an AFC West clash from Arrowhead Stadium.
Cassel took over for injured superstar Tom Brady and capably kept McDaniels' offense among the NFL's most potent units when both were members of the New England Patriots last season, with McDaniels -- then the team's offensive coordinator -- parlaying that success into a head coaching gig with the Broncos over the winter. Soon after landing the job, word spread that the brash Bill Belichick disciple had discussions with his one-time employers about bringing Cassel to Denver to run the offense, an idea that clearly didn't sit well with incumbent signal-caller Jay Cutler.
Those negotiations ultimately fell through, and the Patriots in turn shipped Cassel and veteran outside linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City, whose just- hired general manager Scott Pioli had formerly served as New England's player personnel director prior to joining the Chiefs. Cutler, incensed at the new coaching regime for their intentions, demanded a trade and got his wish when the Broncos dealt the strong-armed gunslinger to Chicago just days before the 2009 draft in exchange for quarterback Kyle Orton and a slew of picks.
Despite all the soap-opera theatrics and potential public-relations nightmare, the move has actually worked out quite well for the Broncos. Orton is putting together the best season of his five-year career in McDaniels' wide-open system, and Denver enters the stretch run right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture under their 33-year-old head coach. The 7-4 Broncos currently stand atop the conference Wild Card standings and are just a game back of San Diego for first place in the division.
Cassel hasn't been able to achieve the same measure of success in his first season with his new team. The still-rebuilding Chiefs fell to 3-8 after last Sunday's 43-14 blasting at the hands of powerhouse San Diego and enter this week's slate of games ranked 30th out of 32 NFL clubs in total offense.
Kansas City had won two in a row prior to that fiasco, however, and handed the defending world champion Pittsburgh Steelers a 27-24 overtime defeat at Arrowhead Stadium just two weeks back.
Denver has come down some after a soaring 6-0 start to the McDaniels era, but seemingly got itself back on track with a convincing 26-6 victory over the reeling New York Giants on Thanksgiving Day. A defense that had struggled over the four-game losing streak the Broncos brought into the game returned to its early season form, forcing three turnovers and yielding a paltry 38 total yards in helping Denver to a comfortable 16-0 halftime lead.
Kansas City holds a 53-44 lead in its all-time series with Denver, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Chiefs reached half their 2008 win total with a 33-19 home victory in Week 4, but were 24-17 losers when they visited Denver in Week 14. The latter game ranked as the 146th and (presumably) final win the Broncos career of head coach Mike Shanahan. The Broncos last won in Kansas City in 2007.
The two storied franchises have met just once in the postseason, with the Broncos claiming a 14-10 road victory in a 1997 AFC Divisional Playoff. McDaniels and the Chiefs' Todd Haley will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as a head coaches.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
While Denver has hardly been a juggernaut on offense in McDaniels' debut campaign, the team has gotten efficient play out of Orton (2447 passing yards, 12 TD, 6 INT) and been effective running the football with the backfield tandem of rookie Knowshon Moreno (688 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 4 total TD) and third-down specialist Correll Buckhalter (450 rushing yards, 1 TD, 24 receptions). Moreno, the Broncos' first selection in this past April's draft, has especially been a factor in recent weeks, with the former University of Georgia star averaging a healthy 5.6 per rush as the lead back over the past three games. Physical wide receiver Brandon Marshall (58 receptions, 714 yards, 6 TD), one of the few holdovers from the Shanahan days, continues to be the No. 1 target in the passing game, with fellow wideouts Jabar Gaffney (29 receptions) and Eddie Royal (31 receptions) and tight end Tony Scheffler (27 receptions, 2 TD) used as complementary parts to an offense that stresses spreading the ball around. Orton had been bothered by an ankle injury that forced him to exit a Week 10 loss at Washington, but showed he's in good health by producing a solid 18-for-28, 245-yard showing versus the Giants.
Orton and the Broncos receivers shouldn't have too much trouble exploiting a Kansas City defense that's surrendered the third-most passing yards in the league (258.4 ypg) and has generated only 14 sacks in 11 games. The Chiefs were torched for 332 yards through the air by the Chargers last weekend, with standout tight end Antonio Gates abusing the suspect safety combo of Mike Brown (62 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 INT) and Jon McGraw (28 tackles, 1 sack) for 117 yards and two scores on seven catches. The Chiefs have given up 14 passing plays of 40 yards or more, the most in the NFL this year. The group hasn't been much better in containing the run, having permitted an average of 134.5 rushing yards per game (27th overall), but did hold San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson to a modest 39 yards on 13 carries a week ago. Inside linebacker Demorrio Williams (75 tackles) recorded nine tackles in the loss and leads the team in stops. Vrabel (33 tackles, 1 sack), a stabilizing presence on a transitioning defense, could return from a knee sprain that's kept him out of the past two games, although youngster Andy Studebaker (20 tackles, 2 INT) has shown promise while filling in. The 24-year-old had a pair of long interception returns in the Chiefs' upset win over Pittsburgh in Week 11.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Cassel (1898 passing yards, 13 TD, 7 INT) has found the going to be considerably tougher after leaving the talent-laden Patriots. Playing behind a suspect front line that's allowed 38 sacks so far this year, the young quarterback is completing just 55.6 percent of his passes and averaging a subpar 5.9 yards per attempt. It hasn't helped matters that wide receiver Dwayne Bowe (33 receptions, 4 TD), the team's best downfield threat, is just halfway through a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancers. Chargers castoff Chris Chambers (26 receptions, 4 TD) has been a pleasant surprise since being claimed off waivers in early November, however, with the ninth-year receiver having scored three touchdowns and averaged nearly 19 yards per catch in four games as a Chief. The offense has also benefited from the insertion of second-year speedster Jamaal Charles (406 rushing yards, 26 receptions, 4 total TD) as the primary running back, as evidenced by the 147 yards from scrimmage (93 rushing, 54 receiving) he put up on the Chargers last weekend. The 22-year-old is averaging an impressive 5.2 yards per carry on the season, although he's had some issues with ball security. Kansas City ranks dead last in the league in third-down conversions, having made just 22.7 percent of its tries in such situations.
The Chiefs could have a problem keeping Cassel upright against an aggressive Denver defense that's adept at bringing the heat. The Broncos are tied for fourth in the NFL with 32 sacks, with havoc-wreaking outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil (37 tackles, 3 forced fumbles) having generated a league-best 14 after taking down the Giants' Eli Manning twice on Thanksgiving. Denver's knack for getting pressure further aids a seasoned secondary that features three players who have been to multiple Pro Bowls in safety Brian Dawkins (79 tackles, 9 PD), cornerback Champ Bailey (59 tackles, 1 INT, 10 PD) and nickel back Ty Law (8 tackles). The Broncos, who stand fifth overall in both total yards (295.0 ypg) and points allowed (17.2 ypg), can also hold their own against the run. The Giants mustered a mere 57 yards in last week's loss and had trouble moving the pile on a stout interior corps led by the playmaking Dawkins, who registered eight solo tackles and a forced fumble, and inside linebackers D.J. Williams (81 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Andra Davis (69 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Denver is 7-0 when it gives up 23 points or less this season.
A matchup against Kansas City's soft stop unit often results in a fantasy bonanza for opposing players, and Moreno and Marshall owners should have those two in starting lineups during this critical point of the season. Orton's usually regarded as more of a secondary option at quarterback, but one could certainly do worse at the position. Denver's share-the-wealth philosophy when passing makes all receivers other than Marshall risky plays, although Scheffler has potential at the tight end spot and Royal gains value in leagues that reward return yardage. The Chiefs have made it clear that Charles will be dominating backfield touches down the stretch, so he's one of the few safe bets on the team's roster. Chambers has shown to be a reliable source of points as well in his new surroundings, but Cassel and any other Kansas City skill players are better-suited to the bench. The Denver defense gets a go- ahead for this week, as the Chiefs don't score much and surrender a lot of sacks.
The Chiefs had been a tough out for the opposition before running into a buzzsaw in San Diego last weekend, and it wouldn't be a total shock if they were able to knock off a Denver squad that was playing pretty lousy prior to its bounce-back performance against the Giants. The Broncos generally win when they play good defense, however, and Kansas City doesn't seem to present enough of a threat on the other side to prevent that from happening again this week. McDaniels' familiarity with Cassel's strengths and weaknesses provides another advantage for Denver in a game it needs to have in order to enhance its playoff credentials.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Broncos 20, Chiefs 10
12/03 17:14:22 ET