There won’t be a trophy handed out, but let there be no doubt: the upcoming contest against the Kansas City Chiefs is the Broncos’ Super Bowl. Losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Las Vegas Raiders, and Cleveland Browns eliminated any margin for error.
According to Football Outsiders’ playoff odds report that simulates the remainders of the season 50,000 times, the Broncos have a 28.4% chance to make the postseason. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 27% chance. At 6-5 with six games to go, there’s four more divisional games to try and climb out of the current hole the Broncos find themselves in if they want to make the playoffs.
Here’s what I’m looking for today.
Broncos remaining schedule:— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) November 29, 2021
Probably need to win at least 3 of the 5 AFC games and can't afford to blow the game against Detroit. https://t.co/gOdYERl5KH
1. Will Tom McMahon cost Denver the game?
The biggest mismatch in this contest between two divisional rivals is on special teams, where Dave Toub is the best coordinator in the league while the Broncos employ the worst.
Eleven games into 2021 and the Broncos’ special teams are among the worst in football. They allowed a Brandon McManus field goal to get blocked in their loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. They’ve given up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown; Devin Duvernay’s career-long, 42-yard punt return; and they’ve had three punts come painfully close to getting blocked, so it shouldn’t be a shock that the Dallas Cowboys blocked a punt. Dre’Mont Jones was called for a critical leverage penalty in the loss to the Steelers, and on top of all that Diontae Spencer is among the least effective kickoff return men in the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs have the second best special teams in the league by Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric that adjusts for opponent strength. They have very good kick coverage units and Byron Pringle’s 25.4 yards per kick return is tied for the second best average of any returner in the league. 15 of Tommy Townsend’s 26 punts have been downed inside the 20 and he’s still averaging 48.6 yards per punt this season, a mark that ranks among the six best in the league. 11 of those punts were returned for a grand total of 49 yards. The second year punter’s never had a kick blocked in the NFL. He’s also a capable passer, something the Raiders overlooked in their 41-14 defeat in November. The Chiefs also blocked a kick this year, and Pringle came awful close to a blocking punt in the Cowboy’s game.
McMahon’s got his work cut out for him tonight,
2. What’s Fangio’s plan?
3. Can the Broncos heat up Mahomes?
4. Does the coverage hold its own?
5. How does the run defense look?
6. Can the Broncos make stands in the red zone?
Lost amidst the wreckage of two painful defeats, Vic Fangio’s defense played valiantly in 2020. The dynamic Chiefs offense completed five passes for 20+ yards, but only converted just three of 18 third downs and Patrick Mahomes was sacked four different times.
They’ll need to be even better for the Broncos to come out on top tonight, a tough ask. The biggest question hanging over the game is how Fangio will try and do it. The obvious answer is to live in two high coverage shells, which the Broncos’ head coach already does more than just about anyone in the league.
What affect does the proliferation of two high shells have on the passing game?— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 3, 2021
Quarterbacks take less downfield shots outside the numbers when facing two high shells and have been less efficient overall.
NFL Average EPA/Dropback (2021)
Single High: +0.03
Two High: -0.02 pic.twitter.com/Ev649QJ2dd
If the Broncos do plan to play out of two high shells in this game it will mean they’re playing with only six or seven players in the box, an open invitation for Andy Reid to run the ball. While the Chiefs’ box score numbers won’t blow anyone away, they’re efficiency numbers suggest they have the personnel to do just that. Kansas City’s currently the 11th best rushing offense in the league by FO’s Adjusted Line Yards and they’re especially dangerous between the tackles, which is an area of weakness for this Broncos’ defense.
What makes Kansas City’s rushing attack even scarier is how they haven’t fully moved towards the gap scheme runs that have routinely given Fangio’s fronts trouble. It’s a mystery as to why that’s the case because they have the personnel along the line to bludgeon opponents with plays like one back power, trap, and counter OH. With a bye week to self scout and adjust to the talent on hand, tonight could be the time to unleash it.
The other big question hanging over Fangio is how he’ll generate pressure on Mahomes, something the Broncos have struggled to do without sending extra bodies this season until Bradley Chubb’s return against the Los Angeles Chargers in week 12. Through 11 games the Broncos have blitzed on 30.4% of their defensive snaps, the 9th highest rate in the NFL. Sending five or more against Mahomes is a game of Russian Roulette, but the Broncos may not have viable alternatives if Jonathon Cooper’s neck and/or Shelby Harris’ ankle prevent their usual contributions to the defense.
It’s unrealistic to hope the Broncos can keep Mahomes out of the redzone all night, but the limited space to work with should work to the Broncos advantage, as the Chiefs’ offense has had issues capping drives with six this season. They’re currently the 28th ranked redzone offense by DVOA and have found more success running the ball. Part of this is because Tyreek Hill’s speed isn’t quite as lethal when he can’t outrun you 20-yards downfield, which limits the ways Reid can use him to open up room to work for the less heralded weapons. This should provide Fangio a little more flexibility to throw a wrench or two in Mahomes’ direction. The Broncos will also have to stay assignment sound, as Reid’s got a grab bag of concepts and trick plays he uses to flummox the opposition in short yardage. With a bye week to add extra wrinkles to the game plan, everything’s on the table.
7. What’s Shurmur’s plan?
8. Can the offensive line win consistently?
9. Is Pookie ready to rumble?
10. Who wins the passing game matchups?
11. Will Bridgewater take the necessary chances?
Stats can be deceiving when it comes to this Kansas City defense. On the year they’re allowing 364 yards per game, the 10th worst mark in the league. They look even worse when it comes to DVOA, where they rank 26th. Look a little closer, and it becomes clear just how bad Kansas City was early in the season and how good they’ve been since. They’ve created 11 turnovers and limited opponents to 303.5 yards per contest across their last six games, a mark that’d rank among the three best defenses in the league.
Steve Spagnuolo didn’t overhaul the scheme since the beginning of the season, Kansas City’s personnel improved. Daniel Sorenson’s role was minimized, as he was replaced in the starting lineup by Juan Thornhill. The linebacker corps. has moved to a rotation consisting of Anthony Hitchens, Willie Gay, and rookie Nick Bolton, while Melvin Ingram was acquired before the NFL trade deadline to serve as a pass rush specialist. Chris Jones has spent more rushing from the three technique after spending a significant chunk of his snaps at the five early in the year.
All these moves made incremental improvements that have added up in a big way. So much so that if the Broncos want to beat the Chiefs they’ll need a complete game from Pat Shurmur and the offense.
First image is how NFL defenses rank by EPA the first 6 weeks.— Joe Rowles (@JoRo_NFL) December 5, 2021
Second is how they've fared in the games since. pic.twitter.com/q2GyNRwnhZ
The Chiefs are strongest up front. Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Jarran Reed all have the talent to handily beat their counterparts along the Broncos’ offensive line, especially if Garett Bolles and Bobby Massie are gimpy in their first game back from ankle injuries. The best way to avoid exposing the line to bad matchups is for Shurmur to lean on the rushing attack. So long as Denver can stay ahead of the chains, this will help to minimize number of the times Bridgewater has to sit in the pocket.
Kansas City’s been softest between the tackles and off the right end, so concepts like inside zone, duo, and power should be successful. Unfortunately, Melvin Gordon’s injury means the Bronco backfield is down to rookie Javonte Williams and third stringer Mike Boone. It will be Pookie’s first start.
The rookie combines elite contact balance with very good explosiveness, but he’s also been a boom/bust runner this season. Part of this is due to the Broncos’ line allowing stuffs on 19% of all carries as well as a few poor decisions by the back. If Kansas City can muddle his reads and swarm him in the backfield it will lead to more long yardage situations on second and third down, which exposes the line and Bridgewater to whatever Spagnuolo’s cooked up to attack Denver’s pass protection. Kansas City will mug the A-gaps, overload fronts, bring defensive backs on blitzes, or even send a jailbreak with cover 0 behind it.
The less Teddy Bridgewater and the banged up line is exposed to Spags’ pressure package the better it will be for Denver’s chances.
At some point Teddy Bridgewater will have to pass, of course.
If the protection holds up Bridgewater should find room to operate in the middle of the field against KC’s linebacker rotation of Gay, Bolton, and Hitchens. Gay is the best athlete, but his relative inexperience shows up in the way he processes post-snap, and he’s susceptible to miscues against crossers. Bolton and Hitchens are cut from a similar cloth, adequate athletes who are out of their depths on athletes such as Noah Fant or Albert Okwuegbunam.
This could be also serve as a breakout game for Jerry Jeudy with his ability to quickly uncover in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick’s production may well depend on Bridgewater’s willingness to take chances. Neither L’Jarius Sneed or Charvarius Ward are slouches. Both stand 6’1 and have the physicality, explosiveness, and speed to run deep downfield and battle for jump balls.
The Chiefs have won 11 consecutive games against the Broncos, a stretch that goes back to Peyton Manning’s last rodeo in 2015. Now that Von Miller’s a member of the Los Angeles Rams, Brandon McManus is the only remaining player who was a part of that squad. With Mahomes only 26 Denver’s at risk of becoming little more than an afterthought in the rivalry. Beyond pride, the Chiefs represent what could be the final crossroads game of the 2021 campaign.
At 6-5 in a crowded AFC playoff field, the Broncos find themselves in the “put up or shut up” part of the schedule. If the Broncos find a way to escape Kansas City with a win they’ll find themselves atop the AFC West with five games to play. A loss will all but end any realistic shot at the postseason.
Let’s hope they’re ready to battle.