A range of emotions flowed through Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith as he walked off the field at Denver following the teams’ first meeting of the season.
There was disappointment, because the Chiefs lost for the first time after nine straight wins. There was stimulation because of the intensity and enormity of the game. And there was anticipation knowing the Chiefs would be seeing the Broncos again soon.
“That game was fun because it was so close, and the feeling the whole team had coming off that field was, we were ready to play again,” Smith said of the 27-17 loss at Denver. “If they said, ‘You know what, let’s play again right now …’ We were all ready.”
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The teams didn’t have to wait long. Because of a quirk in the NFL schedule, the Chiefs, 9-2, and Broncos, 9-2, meet at 3:25 Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, just two weeks after their prime-time showdown for first place in the AFC West at Denver.
The stakes are even higher now.
With a win, the Chiefs would regain first place in the division, perhaps clinch a spot in the playoffs depending on other results, and most importantly, take the inside track on homefield advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
A Denver win would not only give the Broncos the division lead, but also a season sweep of the Chiefs, giving them the first tie-breaker and, in essence, a two-game lead in the division and for the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs with four games to play.
The runner-up in the AFC West would do no better than a No. 5 seed and have to open on the road in the playoffs.
“This is kind of what’s fun about this business,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “You’re within shooting distance right here, and you get to this time of the year and you’re in the hunt … what a beautiful thing that is.
“You remember where this thing started, way back in February, March. These guys have been busting their tails from that period on and all of the sudden you’re sitting here and you have an opportunity where these games mean something. That’s the exciting part of it.”
Both teams are coming off gut-wrenching losses on the field and lost at least one key defensive player to injury.
The Chiefs absorbed a second straight defeat when San Diego scored with 24 seconds to play for a 41-38 upset at Arrowhead last Sunday, while the Broncos blew a 24-0 lead and fell 34-31 at New England later that night.
In the process, Chiefs sack leader Justin Houston was lost for this week because of a subluxation of his right elbow, while Denver lost defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, a key player in their run defense, for the season because of a dislocated hip.
So maybe the best medicine for bouncing back from such devastating defeats is to play an archrival for the division lead.
“Timing is everything,” Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “You definitely don’t want to lose three in a row. What better team to come in …
“We’ll be in first place if we win this. That’s our main focus right now, to be in first place in the division. That’s your goal at the beginning of the year … Denver is coming into our house, and we still have the opportunity to be in first place in the division. We have to take advantage of it.”
It’s rare, but not unprecedented in Chiefs history that just one week separates two regular-season games between division rivals.
In the franchise’s first season as the Dallas Texans in 1960, the club opened the regular season at the Los Angeles Chargers, losing 21-20, stayed on the West Coast for a 34-16 win the next week at Oakland; and beat the Chargers 17-0 in week three.
And in 1961, the Texans lost 18-17 to the Boston Patriots at home, and the next week lost at Boston 28-21.
With the NFL eventually expanding to 32 teams and 16 games, playing both divisional games in such a short span faded from the schedule. But now that the league has started to backload divisional games in the second half of the season, occurrences like this may become more common.
For instance, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, who are a game apart in the NFC South, will play on Dec. 8 and 22.
“Well you’re going to play each other (twice) anyway,” Reid said. “I haven’t really put much thought into that part. I’ve played them literally back-to-back before. That’s a little different.”
Indeed, in 2009, Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles finished the regular season with a 24-0 loss at Dallas and returned to Cowboys Stadium for a NFC playoff game the next week and lost 34-14. In 1991, the Chiefs finished the regular-season with a 27-21 win at the Los Angeles Raiders and beat the Raiders in a playoff game 10-6 the next week at Arrowhead.
“The general philosophy isn’t going to change,” Reid said. “Their schemes aren’t going to change. There will be tweaks within the scheme; we’ll do the same thing. I don’t think you’re going to see drastic changes within the time period given to prepare for the games.
“They have a pretty good idea, by this time of the year, of what we’re doing and we have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing. Now you come down and you go play good football.”
Adding to the importance of winning this game is that the Chiefs finish their season with three of their last four games on the road, and the home game is against AFC South-leading Indianapolis. Denver plays its next two at home against Tennessee and San Diego before finishing with games at Houston and at Oakland.
All four of the Broncos remaining opponents have sub-.500 records.
“This is a division game, that’s the most important thing,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. “As the season goes on, playoff implications get bigger and bigger. There are still a lot of games, there are so many scenarios to this point … so the division is the focus.
“You put yourself in a position like this, regardless that each of us lost last week, it’s still right in front of us.”
It’s in front of the Broncos as well.
“You never know what can happen,” Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said, “but we want to get the W and go undefeated in our division because then there won’t be any questions asked.”
Until the next meeting. Sunday’s outcome could determine whether the AFC championship game will be played in Denver or in Kansas City.
“Both of these teams are excited playing each other again because this game is probably going to decide who is going to win the division,” said former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. “The players realize you don’t have to motivate them to get ready for this game … because of the playoff picture … and they’re probably going to see each other again, if it works out right.”