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NFL Preview - Kansas City (5-3) at Denver (2-6)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It doesn't seem long ago that this one looked a lot different.
Though it's been a while since they've attained Super Bowl prowess, the Denver Broncos have been a consistent contender in the AFC West and usually a favorite to handle a Kansas City Chiefs franchise that's been floundering for the most part during a stretch that yielded a 10-38 record between 2007 and 2009.
Until a sea change began in the initial hours of 2010, that is.
In a 2009 season-wrapping game between these teams, who will face off at Invesco Field at Mile High this Sunday, last Jan. 3, Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles rumbled for a franchise-record 259 yards and two scores in a 44-24 Chiefs win at Denver, triggering the Chiefs' drastic turnaround that's been among the most prominent stories of the ongoing NFL schedule.
The Chiefs have used Charles and battering ram Thomas Jones for a league-best ground game on the way to the top rung on the midseason AFC West ladder, while Denver's 6-0 start last season has devolved into a 4-14 follow-up that has left initial coaching prodigy Josh McDaniels on the hot seat.
The second-year Broncos head coach's situation hasn't been helped by the severity of the losses, including a 45-point home debacle against the Raiders on Oct. 24 and an eight-point defeat against one-win San Francisco in a league showcase road trip to London the following Sunday, prior to last week's bye.
"It doesn't take a miracle," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said when asked of what the team needs to turn things around. "It takes hard work and dedication. We have to get everyone rededicated. It's not like we don't work. We have to find a way to work harder and do things better."
Overall, Denver's current four-game losing streak has yielded a combined deficit of 71 points.
"We have to make sure when we come out of this bye week, as much as this thing hurts, we dust ourselves off, have a smile on our face, a song in our heart and go out and play some inspired football," said safety Brian Dawkins.
For Kansas City, though it's coming off an overtime loss to Oakland last Sunday, the challenge for head coach Todd Haley is maintaining the high expectations the 5-3 first-half start has created.
"You're still looking at a new beginning," Haley said. "This is an opportunity to start fresh. That�s probably what [the Broncos] are doing. Their record isn't what they want it to be. Ours isn't what we'd like it to be, but it is what it is. You are what you are.
"The key for us is that we just keep making progress. If we don't do that, if we slip that way, we're just not at a state where we can overcome it. Every day is so critical to us."
Kansas City holds a 54-45 lead in its all-time series with Denver, including an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Chiefs were drilled by a 44-13 score when the teams met at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 13, but went to Denver and routed Kansas City, 44-24 in the regular season finale. That victory snapped an eight-game losing streak for the Chiefs in Denver. The teams earned a conventional home-and-home split of the 2008 series.
On Sunday, Kansas City will be trying to pull off its first two-game winning streak over the Broncos since sweeping them in 2000. The Chiefs last won in Denver in back-to-back years in 1999-2000.
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 is 1-1 against both the Chiefs and Haley.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
In his past four games, Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel has completed 67-of-108 passes (62 percent) for 762 yards with eight touchdowns versus one interception and a 104.0 passer rating. Kansas City ranks fourth in the NFL with a 99.6 quarterback rating in the second half and overtime of games in 2010. The Chiefs' rush offense is first in the NFL this season with a 179.6 yards per game clip. Last time around against Denver, while he was with the New York Jets in 2008, Jones had 138 rushing yards on 16 attempts (an 8.6-yard average) with two touchdowns. Fellow running back Charles had his franchise- record 259 rushing yards with two touchdowns in his last game versus Denver. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe aims for a fifth consecutive game with a touchdown reception this week. With seven scoring catches, he needs just one to surpass a career-high set in 2008. Rookie wideout Verran Tucker, an undrafted free agent, recorded his first career touchdown reception on his first career catch last week.
Taken individually, linebacker D.J. Williams leads Denver with 72 tackles and cornerback Andre Goodman aims for a fourth consecutive game with an interception versus Kansas City. The Broncos by the numbers have been torched for nearly 4.6 yards per carry en route to a frightening 154.6 yards per week on the ground, and they've given up an average of 204.4 yards per game through the air with just nine sacks and five interceptions. Opponents have gotten a 40-7 jump in the first quarter and a 70-42 advantage in the fourth, meaning Denver's been soundly beaten at the start and the finish. Williams, with his 57 solo stops, has also been the Broncos' sack leader with 3 1/2 of the team's composite total. Five players, including veteran safety Dawkins and cornerback Bailey, have an interception apiece to make up the overall total.
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
For those seeking optimism, the Broncos have a 15-6 all-time record after the bye week and since 2000, Denver is 8-2 against Kansas City at home. Quarterback Kyle Orton had 431 yards in his last meeting against Kansas City, the second-most in his career, and posted his fifth 300-yard passing game of the season in the Week 8 loss to San Francisco. He ranks second in the league with an average of 313.6 passing yards per game in 2010 (2,509 total). Rookie quarterback Tim Tebow, the 25th overall pick in April's draft, has two rush touchdowns in his past three games in the Wildcat formation. Running back Knowshon Moreno has four rushing touchdowns in two career games vs. Kansas City, while backfield mate Correll Buckhalter averages 6.9 rush yards per carry for his career against the Chiefs (20 attempts, 137 yards). Wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (878 receiving yards) needs 122 yards for the first 1,000-yard season of his career. He posted a fifth 100-yard receiving game of season against the 49ers and leads NFL with 17 catches of 20-plus yards this season. Lloyd had four catches for 95 yards (a 23.8-yard average) against San Francisco.
A recent contract extension signee, Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson had two interception-return touchdowns in last season's finale against Denver. Fellow linebacker Tamba Hali (eight sacks) needs a sack to surpass his career-high of 8 1/2 set in 2009. He aims for a fourth straight game with at least one sack as well. Rookie safety Eric Berry, the No. 5 overall pick in April's draft, had the first two interceptions of his career last week against Oakland, while cornerback Brandon Flowers had a pick in his last meeting with Denver. Numbers-wise, the Chiefs allow 331.3 yards per game, including a moderately stingy 98.4 rushing yards per week along with an average of 232.9 yards per game via the pass and seven interceptions and 19 sacks in eight games. Three players -- Flowers, Berry and safety Jon McGraw -- lead the team with two interceptions each, while the aforementioned Johnson has 64 tackles (48 solos) and Hali sets the pace with eight sacks.
More so than most matchups across the league this week, this one screams out as a definitive edge for the Kansas City running tandem of Charles and Jones facing an eternally-porous Denver run defense. Alongside, the surging Bowe indicates opportunity catching passes and Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop should have opportunities to cap drives. It's not all slanted toward the Chiefs, however. Orton has posted enough numbers thus far to warrant a play against the Kansas City pass defense, making Lloyd and perhaps No. 2 receiver Jabar Gaffney worthy of a nod.
Oh sure, the Broncos might effectively rally around McDaniels, circle the wagons at home and head off the charge of a seemingly more superior and legitimate foe in the Chiefs. But until Denver proves it can contend with the division's and league's elite, it's hard to make that case. Kansas City has a definitive edge in its strength -- running the ball -- against the Broncos' weakness, which is defending the run. That alone should dictate a game in which the visitors control the clock, the line of scrimmage and the scoreboard.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Chiefs 21, Broncos 13
11/11 19:51:42 ET