By the end of Week 12 we may be one step closer to resolving the logjam in the NFL's AFC West.
Coming into Sunday, three teams are within one game of first place, with the second place Kansas City Chiefs (7-3) and third place Denver Broncos (7-3) neck and neck trailing the Oakland Raiders by one game. The winner of the Sunday Night Football game between the Chiefs and the Broncos moves a step closer to the top of the AFC West and a playoff berth.
The Chiefs are coming off a disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last weekend in which they could not get their offense going despite facing a mediocre Tampa defense. Generating offense has been an issue all year for the 20th ranked offense, according to Football Outsiders. The loss of Jamaal Charles has hurt KC’s running game, and while Spencer Ware has stepped in to fill the role with some success, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, the consistency has not been there for all four quarters.
The Kansas City passing game is not doing the offense any favors so far this season either. Alex Smith is having an efficient season, throwing for 220.3 yard per game and nine touchdowns to only four interceptions, but his unwillingness to throw the ball down field makes it difficult for the run game to get going. Coming into this season, Smith had thrown the ball between 21-30 yards down the field only 2.5 percent of the time over the past three seasons, placing him last in the league. This year, he seems even less inclined to move the ball vertically and that is making it difficult for the offense to keep defenses honest.
Where the offense struggles, the defense picks up the slack and then some. The 11th ranked Chiefs defense is 8th against the pass in terms of Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), a stat which measures the effectiveness of a defense with regards to how it limits points and yards situationally, adjusted for down, distance, score, and time. Led by NFL interceptions leader Marcus Peters and All-Pro safety Eric Berry, the Chiefs are opportunistic and aggressive in the secondary.
Berry is at his most dangerous when he can make a play on the ball and take it the other way. He scored from 42 yards out against the Carolina Panthers earlier this year in one of the season’s best plays. When asked about the play, Berry told reporters it’s just something he learned when he was younger.
“Just playing outside, playing football in the front yard, back yard, just trying moves that you see on TV," Berry told ESPN when asked where he honed his running skills. “At the end of the day, it’s still that sport we grew up playing and just going out there and having fun and understanding what’s going on and letting your instincts take control. I think [playing quarterback in high school] definitely had a lot to do with it but as far as just playing in the front yard with my brothers and my friends back at home goes a long way as well.”
KC is especially proficient in forcing turnovers. The team leads the NFL in interceptions (13) and fumbles recovered (10), resulting in the league’s best turnover differential of +13. If the Chiefs can force turnovers, and limit their own, the game could tip in their favor.
Like Kansas City, Denver is a very strong defensive team and a poor offensive team, but Denver is the extreme in both directions. The offense is 26th in the NFL and struggles both to run the ball and move it through the air. Trevor Siemian is running an NFL offense for the first time, and the second-year quarterback has had his fair share of ups and downs this season. In all, his 213.3 yards per game, seven interceptions, and 85.0 QB rating make it difficult on the Denver running attack that averages only 3.7 yards per carry.
Meanwhile on defense, Denver is Football Outsider’s second ranked unit on the strength of an overwhelming pass rush. The team allows only 194.3 yards per game passing and has forced 10 interceptions and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 71.0 Quarterback Rating.
The engine that makes the Denver pass rush go is All-Pro Von Miller. Miller is part of the matchup to watch Sunday, as he lines up against KC'a offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Coming into this season, Schwartz was Pro Football Focus’s 4th ranked available offensive lineman in free agency, and he has been even better since moving from Cleveland to Denver. When he faced off against Miller last season, Schwartz limited Miller to only three quarterback pressures.
Miller is having another exceptional season, ranked fourth in the NFL in both sacks (9.5) and pressures (21). Pro Football Focus ranks him as the 4th best edge rusher this season, and he’ll be giving Schwartz fits all night if they have to match up one on one.
Both offenses are going to have issues moving the ball, but the difference (and differencemaker this week) is KC’s ability to take care of the ball. Alex Smith may not move the ball, but he will also not turn it over. Siemian, on the other hand, is more prone to mistakes and is more likely to make the game changing turnover. Look for a very close contest that KC pulls out in the end.