GAMETIME: 7:30 p.m. CT on Sunday, November 27LOCATION: Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colo.HOW TO WATCH:NBCHOW TO LISTEN:101.1 The FoxGAMECENTER: Chiefs.com
The AFC West has performed so well this season that three of the four teams would make the playoffs if they started Sunday.
Unfortunately, they don't.
The Kansas City Chiefs (7-3) instead visit the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos (7-3) on Sunday Night Football, which begins a final six-game stretch for the Chiefs in which they will play division teams four times.
"It's exciting anytime you have an opportunity to play [the Broncos]," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said this week. "They're the world champs. They're there. They've been at the top of the AFC West here, so that's exciting."
Despite winning the AFC West division five years in a row, the Broncos currently sit in third place behind the Chiefs and the AFC-leading Oakland Raiders.
Because the entire division has played so well this season, Sunday's game becomes even more critical.
"I don't think you could make it any bigger or more intense than it already is," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said of this week's game. "The way the division has gone to this point, it's already pretty tight. This is our first crack at these guys and they're the defending Super Bowl champions. We've been in a lot of battles with these guys over the years and the fact that it got moved to the Sunday Night game, it'll be under the lights and we understand that. It'll be fun. I don't think it could be any more intense than it already is."
The challenge Smith will face in the Broncos defense Sunday will be significant, as it ranks No. 4 in the league based upon yards allowed per game (318). When it comes to yards passing allowed per game, the Broncos are No. 2.
"They're really good," Smith said. "That's obvious looking at them statistically the last few years. Personnel wise, they're good across the board. Up front, linebacker level and secondary, these guys are really, really good. They're well coached and they're fast. You look at the numbers and they're there."
As the Chiefs deal with a number of injuries—defensive lineman Jaye Howard, linebacker Dee Ford and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin won't play—the Broncos are notably healthy for it being Week 12 of the season.
The only player that's out for the Broncos is long snapper Casey Kreiter, so they signed former Chief Thomas Gafford to fill the role on Sunday.
Cornerback Aqib Talib, who missed the last three games, and DL Derek Wolfe, who missed the last game, are set to make their returns.
As noted earlier this week, Sunday will mark the first time the Broncos will play with their full first-team defense since Week 2.
With no Maclin, the Chiefs will once again rely on Chris Conley, Albert Wilson and Tyreek Hill in the passing game. Conley has seen increased playing time as Maclin has missed the past three weeks.
Though the Broncos have strong pass defense numbers, their rush defense is ranked No. 29 in the league based upon yards rushing allowed per game (123.7). That means the Chiefs' combination of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West, who should be good to go after being in the concussion protocol last week, will be imperative to Kansas City's chances.
Ware is averaging 4.9 yards per attempt this season.
"His mindset is so focused at being humble at the position," co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said last week. "He does the little things. He has no problem making that extra block. When he gets the ball on a third and two or three, he has a pretty good sense that he'll probably get it because he runs so physical with the ball."
The Travis Kelce-Von Miller matchup remains one to watch as well.
"Me and Travis Kelce have always had our battles during the game," Miller said in a conference call with the Kansas City media this week. "I think this one is going to be 'Miller-Kelce 7'. I always enjoy going against him. He's one of the best tight ends in the National Football League, and he's going to talk about it as well. That's always great and it's always exciting to go up against great players in the National Football League."
The Broncos offense is led by quarterback Trevor Siemian, who replaced Peyton Manning after he retired at the end of last year. Siemian has thrown for more than 2,000 yards with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.
Though it's a new player at the game's most important position, Reid explained this week that he doesn't see a great deal of difference in the Broncos' offensive scheme from last season with Manning at the helm.
"Gary [Kubiak] kind of does his thing," Reid said. "There are some things in the gun that Peyton was doing that [Siemian] doesn't do. Other than that, I'd tell you, it's pretty close to being the same. Maybe a few more nakeds, and bootlegs and that type of thing."
Siemian spreads the ball primarily between the wide receiver duo of Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, who have combined for more than 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns. With C.J. Anderson on injured reserve, the Broncos have turned to rookie Devonte Booker at running back.
The Chiefs' secondary depth could be tested this week, as CB Steve Nelson is out and CB Marcus Peters is questionable to go. (FULL INJURY REPORT).
Reid and the Chiefs will often tell you that they treat every week's game preparation the same, and that stayed true this week as the team got itself ready for Denver.
But as far as implications on the season, this is the Chiefs' most important game to date, and the whole nation will be watching.