KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs are stumbling home to Arrowhead Stadium off two straight losses. The Denver Broncos are hobbling in off a disheartening letdown in New England.
Much has changed in the two weeks since they played at Mile High Stadium.
Much has stayed the same, too.
The Broncos and Chiefs are both 9-2 and tied atop the AFC West, so it’s still a two-team race to the finish. But the Chiefs are no longer the NFL’s lone undefeated team — in fact, they’re the first to start with nine straight wins and then lose two in a row — while the Broncos squandered a chance to create some separation with their overtime loss to the Patriots last weekend.
“I think just playing is the best medicine,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said, “but no question, when you’re playing for your division, it raises the focus for sure.”
The Broncos would have the tiebreaker over Kansas City and a two-game lead with four games to go with a win. The Chiefs would put themselves in position to win the division for just the second time in a decade, not to mention take a step toward home-field advantage in the playoffs.
So it’s an easy argument that there’s even more on the line than the first time they met.
“I don’t think you can just say, ‘Well, it was just a couple weeks ago that we played them,’” Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said. “You have study them just as hard as you did the first time around. So from that standpoint, it doesn’t get any easier to prepare because they are such a diverse team scheme-wise and they have such good players.”
The Chiefs could be without two of their best players, though.
Leading pass rusher Justin Houston, who dislocated his elbow in a gruesome fall during the Chiefs’ 41-38 loss to the Chargers last week, will likely watch from the sideline. His running mate Tamba Hali hopes to play despite spraining his right ankle against San Diego.
If neither of them can go, it doesn’t bode well against the Broncos’ high-scoring offense.
“I feel real optimistic about being out there,” said Hali, who’s missed just two games in his eight-year career. “I want to be out there with our guys. I can definitely be a force.”
Even with their top two pass rushers, the Chiefs failed to get pressure on Manning in their first go-around. Manning threw for 323 yards and a touchdown without an interception or taking a sack, and the result was a reasonably comfortable 27-17 victory.
“We don’t take anything for granted,” Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “We go in, we prepare hard, we make sure we understand the things they want to get done and how can we keep that from happening, and make sure that we’re attacking them with the things that we want to be good at.
“Again, it’s basically approaching it very similarly,” Del Rio added. “The difference is that we just did this a couple weeks ago.”
Here are five things to keep in mind as they play Round 2:
MORENO’S FLAT TIRE: Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno, who had career high 224 yards rushing against the Patriots, missed practice time this week with an ankle injury. Moreno hopes to play against Kansas City, but it’s uncertain how effective he’ll be.
BATTERED DBS: The Chiefs’ defensive backs were humbled last week by Philip Rivers, who threw for nearly 400 yards against them. Now, they face the prospect of Manning and his plethora of wide receivers. “You have to be willing to get down there, to challenge, compete,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Sometimes they might hit a big play on us, but we’re trying to win the game. That’s the No. 1 thing we’re trying to do.”
VICKERSON’S VALUE: Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson landed on injured reserve with a hip injury, so it will be up to Sylvester Williams to step in and help slow down Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles. “I told him, ‘Where this team wants to go, you’re going to have to grow quick,” fellow defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “There are certain expectations.
BEWARE THE PICKS: Denver excels at running crossing routes that inadvertently (wink, wink) cause picks in the secondary. Demaryius Thomas may catch the ball 5 yards downfield, but he ends up gaining 20. “That’s something you have to stop,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “You have to disrupt their routes, hit them as they’re crossing the field.”
CHIEFS LEARNING: Chiefs coach Andy Reid wouldn’t reveal particulars, but he said there were things he learned from the way New England dominated Denver in the second half last Sunday. “You can learn from every game and every snap,” he said. “We’ll see how that works out.”