Chiefs vs. Broncos: Five Things to Watch

Here are a few storylines to keep in mind as the Chiefs host the Broncos on Sunday Night Football

The Kansas City Chiefs (10-4) host the Denver Broncos (8-6) this weekend in another nationally televised game on NBC's Sunday Night Football.

The Chiefs are 2-1 in primetime this year and will be looking for their 10th straight victory over an AFC West opponent, including their third straight win over the Broncos.

These two teams just met back in Week 12, when the Chiefs came away with a last-second game-winning 34-yard field goal from Cairo Santos in overtime. The Chiefs won, 30-27.

It's a game that had a little bit of everything; here's a quick refresher:

-        A safety forced by the Chiefs defense was followed by a return touchdown from Tyreek Hill, who finished with three touchdowns in the game (one return, one receiving, one rushing)

-        Three sacks from Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, which led to the Broncos' starting right tackle getting benched

-        A 76-yard touchdown from Broncos receiver Bennie Fowler that extended the Broncos' lead to eight points with just three minutes remaining in regulation

-        Alex Smith led the Chiefs offense down the field for a game-tying drive in under three minutes

-        Broncos began overtime with a field goal drive, the Chiefs matched with their own field goal, then a 62-yard field goal from Broncos kicker Brandon McManus with 1:08 left was no good, so the Chiefs drove down and Santos doinked in a 34-yarder off the left upright with five seconds left to give the Chiefs the victory

If that game is any kind of an indication for what could transpire on Sunday, football fans are in for a nice Christmas night.

Here are five things to watch on Sunday:

  1. The playoff implications

With a win on Sunday, the Chiefs will earn a playoff berth for the third time in four years under head coach Andy Reid, but there's a chance the Chiefs will have already earned a playoff berth before Sunday's game begins.

If the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are playing at home, beat the Baltimore Ravens in the game on Sunday afternoon (3:30 p.m. CT kickoff), the Chiefs will have already secured a playoff spot.

That said, even if their spot is already clinched, there still would be a lot to play for if you're the Chiefs, who still have an opportunity to win the division, get a first-round bye and host a playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium, where Reid is 22-9 during his time in Kansas City. The Chiefs would need the Oakland Raiders (11-3) to lose to either the Indianapolis Colts (Saturday, 3:05 p.m. CT kickoff) or next week against the Broncos (Sunday, 3:25 p.m. CT kickoff) in order for that to happen. 

The Chiefs are right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture, and with a 41-21 record over the past three-plus seasons, Reid has this team relevant once again with a chance to enter the postseason with a home win in primetime.

This is what it's all about.

"These are two physical teams with a lot on the line and a lot to play for," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said this week. "We'll be the only game on Christmas night, so I don't think it can get any bigger."

"There's no other way we would have it," receiver Chris Conley added. "This is a team that plays championship football – they're defending [Super Bowl champions] – and this is a defense that plays extremely well. There's no excuses for this game for either team. 

"We know what it's about and we know what's on the line here, so we have to get it done."

  1. Travis Kelce and the Chiefs offense against a formidable defense

The Broncos possess the best pass defense in the NFL—allowing a measly 183 yards per game with 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Led by a cornerback tandem of Pro Bowlers Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, who became just the second duo in NFL history to make the Pro Bowl in three consecutive seasons, the Chiefs offense, which has had its struggles over the past few games, will have its hands full.

One player who has given this particular defense all it can handle over the past few seasons is tight end Travis Kelce, whose eight-catch, 101-yard performance in Week 12 is actually the only 100-plus-yard performance against this Broncos defense all season.

With Kelce grabbing just three catches for 41 yards last week against the Titans, which broke a four-game streak of him having at least 100 yards, Reid spoke this week about trying to get Kelce the ball more often, particularly in the red zone.

"He's a pretty popular guy," Reid mentioned of Kelce. "We've had a number of [plays] dialed up for him. Teams are very aware of him now and what he's all about. I can do a better job giving him more opportunities there, though."

Since 2014, Kelce leads all players in yards receiving against the Broncos with 312.

The Chiefs also head into Sunday's game with veteran receiver Jeremy Maclin, who didn't play in the first matchup against the Broncos as he was still dealing with a groin injury.

With Maclin, Kelce and company, the Chiefs will try and put together enough scoring drives to beat the Broncos, who have scored just 13 points combined over their past two games and are 1-4 in games in which their opponent scores 21 or more points.

"For us, the biggest thing is to continue to stay aggressive, which we all know," co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said this week. "We came out last week (against the Titans) and we put up 14 points right away and we all know the second half wasn't what we wanted. We're well aware of that—coaches and players. It's a mentality of finishing—if we keep our foot on the pedal and have that finish mentality on every single play.

"Not just one play in the second half, or five plays, but every single play we need to have that mentality to finish. That's going to be important."

Nagy has liked what he's seen from the players this week as they try and correct mistakes that have led this offense to scoring zero points in the second half of the last three games.

"The players have been great," Nagy added. "They understand what's at stake here. We're obviously trying to be better in that aspect. The players have full trust in us and we have full trust in them. It's just a matter of putting it all together, not letting something like this get us down, staying together, staying positive and knowing that this season is a roller coaster.

"If we can get through the ebb and flow of that, in the long run, when it matters most, we're going to come together."

  1. The Siemian to Sanders connection

The best game of Broncos quarterback Trevor Siemian's career, at least in terms of yards passing, was against the Chiefs back in Week 12. 

Siemian finished the game 20 of 34 for 368 yards and three touchdowns, which was good for a passer rating of 125.6.

While the Broncos have lost three straight games, Siemian's numbers have continued to be impressive—throwing for an average of 328 yards per game over that span.

"I think one of the things that impressed us about him – not only in our game, but going in – he's a real focused guy, in my opinion," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said of Siemian. "He doesn't let the ups and downs change how he plays the game. I think it was reflected in our game, kind of in the Tennessee game. You look up there in the end of the game and say, 'Hey, that first half wasn't very good, but at the end of the game you have 300-yards-some passing.'

"He's a much more gifted player than people realize. He's a dangerous guy. He had some really big plays on us, and just did a really good job."

Siemian's favorite target in the Week 12 game was receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who finished with seven catches (on 10 targets) for 162 yards and a touchdown.

In five games with the Broncos, Sanders has 29 receptions for 430 yards with three touchdowns against the Chiefs. 

  1. Tyreek Hill's impact

Hill won the NFL's AFC Offensive Player of the Week after his Week 12 performance against the Broncos, which included a kickoff return touchdown following a safety early in the second quarter, a rushing touchdown and then a clutch touchdown reception with less than a minute remaining in regulation, which, after a successful two-point conversion, tied the game.

In three primetime games, Hill has six total touchdowns, and he tried explaining what it is about primetime games that bring out the best in him.

"I don't know," Hill said. "I guess I just feel like it's 'Friday night lights,' going back to the high school days. I always think it's fun to play under the lights because that's when everybody is watching. It's the last game on TV. I know my mom is watching, so I have to show out for her."

Because of his performance last time they played, Hill has the attention of the Broncos heading into their second matchup in less than a month.

"He's a Pro Bowl player and well deserved," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said this week of Hill. "He's exceptional and dynamic when the ball touches his hands and there's all kinds of ways he touches it. [He's a] big challenge for us, and obviously, we struggled with him the last time, had one return against us and he was probably about two inches away from having another one. 

"We have a lot of respect for his team and he's done a great job."

  1. The injury situation for both teams includes key players

Justin Houston, who had some swelling in his knee following the game last Sunday against the Titans, didn't practice for the Chiefs all week, which coach Reid said was the plan all along when he spoke with the media on Friday.

"We figured he wouldn't go today, that was all part of it back a couple days ago," Reid explained. "So we're just taking to slow. That doesn't mean he's not going to play—that's not what it means. We'll just see how he does here over the next couple of days.

"He's making progress, that's the most important thing. We're just trying to get the swelling out of there."

Houston, who is officially listed as questionable for Sunday's game, had a team-high 10 tackles, three sacks, five tackles for loss and a forced fumble that led to a safety in the Week 12 game against the Broncos.

Joining Houston as not having practiced for the Chiefs this week are cornerback Phillip Gaines and linebacker Tamba Hali, but that's been normal for the veteran pass rusher.

On the Broncos' side of things, two of the names that jump out on the injury report are veteran safety T.J. Ward (concussion) and linebacker Brandon Marshall (hamstring), who have both already been ruled out for Sunday's game.

Defensive lineman Derek Wolfe, who left last week's game against the Patriots with an neck injury, is listed as questionable (illness).

Wolfe had two sacks and two quarterback hurries in the last matchup against the Chiefs.

"Derek is doing well," Kubiak said Wednesday, via Broncos.com. "I think he has a good chance to get there. We'll just stay positive and hopefully he can get there." 

The other interesting injury tidbit is at the tight end position for the Broncos, who have already ruled out A.J. Derby and Virgil Green for Sunday's game. They are the top two tight ends on the Broncos roster.

The only healthy tight end currently on the Broncos' 53-man roster is Jeff Heuerman, a former third-round pick in 2015 who missed his entire rookie season after a torn ACL suffered in rookie minicamp.

Heuerman caught two passes for 40 yards last week against the Patriots. He now has four career catches for 88 yards.

The Broncos are reportedly planning on bringing up another tight end from the practice squad, but some of those heavy formations and multiple-tight end sets may be something to keep an eye on, particularly in the red zone.

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