The Kansas City Chiefs have redemption on their minds. The Denver Broncos have the AFC West title on theirs.
When the two division rivals meet in Week 13, they'll be determining the pecking order for the playoffs and making a big impact on home-field advantage. But they'll also be playing for bragging rights. With both teams near the top of the NFL standings, the winner can lay claim to a title the other can't.
That's the title of an elite team.
The two teams met in Week 11, and the outcome favored the home team, with Denver coming out on top 27-17. With the game in the cold of Kansas City this time around, what can the Chiefs do differently?
There are four key lessons Andy Reid and his coaching staff can take away from their first loss of the season. If applied correctly, these changes will result in a definitive win for the Chiefs.
Get Jamaal Charles the ball
Charles averages 5.5 yards per carry for his career—good for second most among active players. Against their rivals in Denver, Charles had just 16 carries. That won't do it for the Chiefs in Week 13. Charles has to be the focus of the Kansas City offense.
You might think that because Denver's defense ranks No. 5 against the run that Kansas City will struggle to find rushing lanes for Charles, but that number is skewed. Because the Broncos are so good offensively, few teams are ever in the lead against their defense.
The Broncos don't see as many rushing attempts as other teams because they're generally ahead on the scoreboard. That makes the rushing yards they allow per game lower than most teams.
With a versatile runner like Charles, the Chiefs have the talent to dominate the Denver defense and set the tone for the game early. And with an injury to Kevin Vickerson (dislocated hip) along the defensive line, the Broncos are without their best interior run defender.
If the Chiefs want to get revenge for their prior loss, they'll need to pound the rock with Charles early and often.
Get Donald Stephenson and Geoff Schwartz on the line
The offensive line play for the Chiefs this year has been up and down, especially on the right side. Injuries have forced rookie tackle Eric Fisher and guard Jon Asamoah out of the lineup at times, allowing us to see backups Donald Stephenson (tackle) and Geoff Schwartz (guard) for extended stretches.
What they've shown is that the second team is better than the first.
Fisher, who the team selected No. 1 overall in the 2013 draft, has struggled. Going back to their previous game, Fisher allowed a game-changing two sacks and five quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Stephenson, in reserve duty, has allowed just one sack in eight games. Fisher may be the better player long term, but Stephenson is the better right tackle currently. And with the Chiefs needing to stop Von Miller and Shaun Phillips, that becomes a huge part of the game plan.
Schwartz is versatile enough to play guard or tackle, but when starting in place of Asamoah, the team has seen a huge increase in blitz pickups and in the power run game. Asamoah is a good guard, and he has a load of potential, but Schwartz is the best guard on the team right now.
In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, he's among the 15 best guards in the league.
What Stephenson and Schwartz bring to the game is more experience, more power and better pass protection on the edge of the line. When you consider the way Miller looked against the New England Patriots in Week 12, the Chiefs have to do all they can to stop the Broncos' All-Pro pass-rusher.
Attack key players in the secondary
The Chiefs aren't known for their great passing attack, but they've been successful this year with a high-efficiency attack.
In Week 11, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was quarterback Alex Smith's worst nightmare. The Pro Bowler allowed just two catches and single-handedly took away half of the field.
His ability in man coverage also allowed the Denver front seven to unleash on Smith—something they did with great success. Rodgers-Cromartie was arguably the MVP of the last meeting, but now his status is questionable for Sunday.
Rodgers-Cromartie missed practice Wednesday with a shoulder injury but was back on the field Thursday morning. The Broncos have a habit of sitting out injured players on Wednesday and still suiting them up for the game, but if for some reason DRC can't go, the Chiefs have to attack his replacement. Whether that's Tony Carter, Chris Harris or Kayvon Webster, Alex Smith must home in on that side of the field.
The Chiefs will want to target Carter in particular.
The veteran cornerback was part of the muffed punt mistake in overtime that cost Denver the game versus New England in Week 12, and in coverage he's the team's worst defender. Finding No. 32 any time he's on the field and then going that direction will make for a much more productive Kansas City offense.
Hit Peyton Manning early
At 37 years old, Manning is showing noticeable signs of aging.
Those signs are especially noticeable in cold-weather games—like Week 12 against the Patriots. Manning's arm in those games doesn't show the zip or snap that it did earlier in the season, and his velocity against New England was missing until late in the game when the Broncos had to come from behind.
The Chiefs defense can capitalize by hitting and/or pressuring Manning and making him throw off balance while his arm is still lacking velocity before his adrenaline kicks into high gear.
That's not to say Manning can't carve up a defense with his current arm strength, but he'll float more passes when his arm is cold or tired. Manning, who is already limited due to a sprained ankle, has never been the most agile quarterback in the pocket.
If the Chiefs can get pressure on him—something they didn't do at all in Week 11—they can force him into an interception or, at a minimum, off-target passes that end drives.
The last time these two teams met, the Chiefs didn't sack Manning once. They didn't even register a hit on him despite All-Pro performers Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Dontari Poe in the lineup.
With Houston injured (elbow), the Chiefs will have to dial up more blitz pressures, but if that's what it takes to rattle Manning, then so be it.
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