Here’s The Star’s weekly game preview detailing the key players and matchups for the KC Chiefs’ (9-6) game against the Denver Broncos (5-10) at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The game will air on CBS (Chs. 5, 13).
Head coach: Vance Joseph (5-10) is in his first year on the job. Joseph, 45, is a former quarterback and defensive back from Colorado who played a few years with the Jets and Colts an undrafted free agent. He spent six years on the college level as a graduate assistant and defensive backs coach at Colorado, Wyoming and Bowling Green before he was hired to be an assistant defensive backs coach with the 49ers. He was promoted to defensive backs coach the next year and served in the same position through 2010. In 2011, he joined the Texans in the same role and in 2014, he joined the Dolphins in the same capacity. He was hired to be the Miami Dolphins’ defensive coordinator in 2016. Joseph’s defense ranked fourth in the NFL on third downs (36.2 percent) while forcing the sixth-most negative plays (107) in the league as the Dolphins won nine of their final 11 regular-season games and he emerged as a legitimate head-coaching candidate. In January, he was hired to be the Broncos’ 16th head coach, replacing Gary Kubiak.
Offense: Bill Musgrave, 50, was promoted to offensive coordinator in November following the firing of Mike McCoy. After an illustrious career as a quarterback at the University of Oregon, Musgrave was drafted in the fourth round by the Cowboys. He then embarked on a seven-year career that saw him serve as a quarterbacks coach and/or offensive coordinator across several stops, including Carolina, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Washington and Minnesota. Musgrave was Oakland’s offensive coordinator from 2015 to 2016 before he was relieved of his duties by Jack Del Rio. He landed with the Broncos as a quarterbacks coach before his most recent promotion. Denver ranks 19th in total offense (323.3 yards per game), 21st in passing offense (207.1) and 13th in rushing offense (116.1). Denver is passing the ball 58 percent of the time, and using play-action at a 21 percent clip (tied for eighth in the NFL), according to Football Outsiders.
Defense: Joe Woods, 47, is in his first year as Denver’s defensive coordinator. Woods was promoted from defensive backs coach in February, following Joseph’s hire. With Woods coaching the Broncos’ defensive backs, Denver finished first in the NFL in pass defense in both 2015 (199.6 yards per game) and 2016 (185.8). The Broncos also held opponents to the lowest completion percentage (57.8), yards per attempt (5.99) and passer rating (74.3) during that stretch. Before his promotion, Woods spent 13 seasons as a defensive backs coach with Denver, Oakland, Minnesota and Tampa Bay. Woods still runs the 3-4 defense the Broncos executed to perfection under Wade Phillips, who left this offseason to guide the Rams’ defense. The Broncos have fared well, ranking second in the league in total defense (284.1 yards per game), fourth in pass defense (196.1) and 20th in sacks (31). The Broncos’ run defense ranks third in the league (88.0 yards per game). Teams have opted to stay away from play-action against this team, though they are surrendering 8.1 yards per play-action attempt (26th in the league) according to FO.
Special teams: Brock Olivo, 41, is in his first year as Denver’s special-teams coach. The former Missouri star spent five years as a running back in the NFL with the Detroit Lions before turning to coaching. He spent two years at Coastal Carolina as a running backs coach and special-teams assistant before landing with the Chiefs as an assistant special-teams coach in 2014. Olivo then spent three years under one of the league’s top gurus, Dave Toub, before landing his current position with the Broncos. Kicker Brandon McManus has made 23 of 31 field-goal attempts, and his conversion percentage of 74 ranks 27th in the league among kickers with at least 10 attempts. Punter Riley Dixon has dropped 21 of 69 punts inside the 20, 26th in the league. Denver ranks 14th in kickoff returns (22.2 yards per return) and 17th in punt returns (8.6). It also ranks 29th in kick-return coverage (24.1) and 22nd in punt-return coverage (9.1). They’ve surrendered both a punt-return touchdown and a kick-return touchdown.
Four keys to a Chiefs victory
1. Get these guys down early
With Denver already eliminated from the playoff picture, the Chiefs should be able to take the crowd –– and possibly the Broncos –– out of the game early with a couple of quick scores, whether it be on offense, defense or special teams. If the Chiefs can get ahead early, you can probably stick a fork in Denver. Given the struggles of the Broncos’ offense this season, this is not a team prone to comebacks. The defense has grown frustrated with the offense, and rightly so –– offensive coordinator Mike McCoy was fired a month ago due to the unit’s lack of productivity. What’s more, a couple of quick scores could force the Broncos to get away from the run and pass the ball, a proposition that doesn’t strike much fear due to their inconsistent quarterback play.
2. Protect Patrick
All eyes will be on quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the prized rookie who the Chiefs moved two first-round picks and a third to select in this year’s NFL Draft. Mahomes has lots of dazzling traits, particularly as it relates to his field vision, arm strength and creativity, and he’ll almost certainly make a big play or two, whether he’s given time to throw or not. But his overall performance could come down to how well the Chiefs protect him against a pass rush that can still pose problems, despite ranking 20th in sacks. The key to keeping the Broncos off Mahomes is to throw bodies at stud edge rusher Von Miller, just like the Broncos’ most recent opponents have done. Miller is a special talent with a non-stop motor. He needs to be chipped on every play, especially if starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz doesn’t play the whole game.
3. Load up against the run
New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has brought a downhill mentality to the Broncos, whose only path to winning this game is to establish the run. In all five of their wins this year, they’ve run the ball more times than they’ve passed. That said, while it would help if the Chiefs could stop the run with even-count boxes, that won’t be a given, especially if the Chiefs wisely sit edge-setting monster Justin Houston in preparation for the playoffs. That means the Chiefs might need to cheat a safety into the box to stop the run, and if that means keeping running back C.J. Anderson in check, they should absolutely do that. Despite getting little help from the quarterback position, Anderson only needs 54 yards to crack the 1,000-yard barrier this year. He’s also averaging a very respectable 4.2 yards per carry. The Chiefs have to take him away, especially on the Broncos’ pet power and zone plays.
4. Take away 88 and 10 when necessary
The Chiefs are saying all the right things about Broncos quarterback Paxton Lynch, who is expected to get the nod on Sunday. And to be fair, the former first-round pick is a big (6-7, 244), athletic guy with great physical skills. But the truth is, he hasn’t proven much at the NFL level yet and the Broncos don’t appear to be too impressed, as they are expected to address the quarterback position this offseason. That said, it might be wise to make Lynch prove he can beat the Chiefs through the air. In obvious passing situations, the Chiefs might opt to devote resources toward taking away receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders (who might not play). They are the two Broncos who strike fear in the passing game, and because of the Broncos’ quarterback issues, they’ve only combined for 124 catches and six touchdowns this season. Thomas almost caught that many passes alone in both the 2014 (111) and 2015 (105) seasons with Peyton Manning under center. Taking these guys away and forcing Lynch to complete passes to lesser receivers could be the smart play.
Four Broncos to watch
No. 88, WR Demaryius Thomas, 30 years old, 6-3, 229, eighth season
Joined Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison a few years ago by recording four straight seasons with more than 90 catches and 1,300-plus yards. Had that streak snapped a year ago when he recorded 90 receptions but finished with 1,083 yards and five touchdowns. Is on track to finish with 82 catches for 951 yards and four touchdowns this season. Numbers are down this year due to consistently subpar quarterback play. Massive receiver with size, speed, burst and ball skills. Outstanding measurables for the position. Wins jump balls with ease due to his leaping ability and physicality and also shows the ability to make the spectacular catch. Route running has improved since he arrived in the league. Is a run-after-the-catch threat, both short and intermediate, due to his athleticism and strength. Flashes a nasty stiff arm and remains a reliable No. 1 receiver, despite the drop off in production. Team captain.
No. 58, OLB Von Miller, 28 years old, 6-3, 250, seventh season
Ranked No. 2 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Recorded 78 total tackles with 13 1/2 sacks (second in NFL) and 24 pressures (sixth in the NFL) last season. Is on pace to record 61 tackles and 11 sacks this season. Also has 22 pressures. Outstanding speed, burst and bend off the edge –– no one in the NFL has a better combination of physical pass-rush traits. Has always drawn lots of attention, but teams are actively looking to take him away now since he has less help than in past years. Elite first step allows him to win with speed and set up a dangerous spin move, among other moves. Complete edge rusher who is among the game’s very best. Very rarely drops into coverage. Plays his tail off and is adept and stripping the ball from quarterbacks. Team captain. Is prone to racking up offsides penalties; had four last season and has three so far this season. Is also nasty and aggressive; has been whistled three times for roughing the passer.
No. 25, CB Chris Harris Jr., 28 years old, 5-10, 199, sixth season
Ranked No. 63 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Recorded 63 tackles, 11 pass deflections and two interceptions in 2016. Is on pace to record 42 tackles, seven pass deflections and two interceptions this season. Has only surrendered three touchdowns this year. Smooth, fluid athlete who can run with most receivers and is adept in man or zone coverage. Occasionally lines up in the slot and is one of the game’s very best in that spot, as teams are apt to avoid him there. Terrific eyes; plays the game with anticipation and doesn’t get fooled often. Combines that with excellent feet and solid ball skills. Good, but not great, press corner due to overall lack of length. Competitive, reliable tackler who is willing to step up and do the job. Is also used as a blitzer at times. Very competitive, feisty and talkative. Complete corner who could start anywhere.
No. 21, CB Aqib Talib, 31 years old, 6-1, 205, 10th season
Ranked No. 37 on the NFL’s top-100 list for 2017. Recorded 43 tackles, 12 pass deflections and three interceptions in 2016. Is on pace to record 32 tackles, seven pass deflections and one interception. Has only surrendered three touchdowns this season. Long, rangy, outside corner with excellent press man ability. Has good, but not great, long speed but nonetheless matches up well against big and small receivers alike. Good leaper who can win jump balls. Nasty and supremely competitive; plays with lots of swagger. Irritant who loves to talk trash and get in receivers’ heads. Plays the game with his eyes; is adept at jumping underneath routes and taking it the distance. Very good run defender and complete cornerback, just like his buddy Chris Harris. Team captain. Aggression leads to loads of penalties; has been whistled a team-high 12 times this year, including three times for pass interference.
Prediction: Broncos 19-13
It’s not that the Broncos are a good football team. They aren’t. It’s not that I don’t have confidence in rookie Patrick Mahomes. I do. But picking the Chiefs’ backups to beat a Broncos team that features many of the same players who are only a few years removed from a Super Bowl title is disrespectful. I think too highly of Von Miller, Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. to think they’ll go down without a fight. I expect Mahomes to have some impressive moments and earn some valuable experience, but it’s tough to pick a rookie against the league’s second-ranked defense.