Analysis  

 

Chiefs will make Broncos fight for AFC West; 10 things to watch

When Peyton Manning emerged from a cold tub late Monday night, shivering and trying to catch his breath in the middle of a news conference, it was a rare uncomfortable moment in the Denver Broncos' otherwise steely-eyed assault on defenses.

Really, this was Manning's way of speeding his physical recovery during a short week of preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles, an extra step that, to the untrained eye, hardly seems worth the teeth chattering. Manning had just completed an especially surgical performance, one that included just five incompletions -- and three of those, maybe four, were drops -- three touchdown passes and no interceptions in the Broncos' 37-21 dissection of the Oakland Raiders. It was the Broncos' third jaw-dropping victory, consistent with how everybody expected their season to go.

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A funny thing has happened on the way to the cakewalk, though. The Kansas City Chiefs, who were supposed to be rebuilding like the rest of the AFC West, are 3-0, getting nearly error-free play from Alex Smith and fielding the rare defense that could provide at least some threat to the Broncos, although there are doubts that they're deep enough at cornerback to contain Denver for an entire game. The Chiefs have held opponents to 11.3 points per contest and lead the league with 15 sacks. Outside linebacker Justin Houston leads the league with 7.5 sacks, an ominous threat considering the Broncos have lost left tackle Ryan Clady for the season.

Even as the speculation about the Broncos going undefeated begins, a more urgent question is being asked: Could the Chiefs challenge Denver for a title that seemed a foregone conclusion just two weeks ago in a division that is now -- along with the AFC East -- one of two divisions with two undefeated teams?

Well, maybe not yet.

"Denver has too much firepower on offense," said one former NFL personnel executive who has studied both squads. "Smith can't match him (Manning) -- too conservative in his approach as a passer."

That seems to be what separates the Broncos and Chiefs -- the feeling that while Kansas City is loaded with talent and playing mistake-free games, Denver has a much higher ceiling. That is especially true because, remarkably, the Broncos have been dominating their games without two of their defensive stars on the field. They already are halfway through linebacker Von Miller's six-game suspension, and cornerback Champ Bailey has not played yet this season while recovering from a sprained foot he suffered last month. Still, Denver is tied for the league lead in interceptions, a byproduct of exactly what the Broncos want their defense to do: Give Manning the ball again and again.

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In a scheduling quirk, the Chiefs and Broncos don't face each other until Nov. 17, and then play twice in a three-week span, the games bookending another installment of Manning's epic rivalry with Tom Brady.

Before they meet, both teams will have had plenty of opportunities to gain blemishes on their respective records. It seems unlikely to happen this week, though. In the Philadelphia Eagles, Manning will face the league's 30th-ranked overall defense and 26th-ranked scoring defense and a team that has been intent on playing fast, a strategy whose ugly underbelly should give Manning the ball even more often than usual. The Chiefs will have a chance to harass Manning's brother, Eli, who already has been sacked 11 times this season behind the aging and injured New York Giants offensive line.

If the Chiefs and Broncos both get to 4-0, the comparisons inevitably will grow. But as the perception of the Chiefs shifts, the Broncos -- and overblown expectations for a team that won just two games last season -- loom.

"I think that, in-house, I really feel like we have a great group," Smith said this week. "A group that understands what's gotten us here and that we're not there yet. The group has really stayed short-sighted, so that's good. The outside mentality changed a little bit. Everybody wants to be quick to jump to conclusions and make their own assumptions. This is football. This is a week-to-week deal."

That's certainly true. And here are 10 more things to watch in Week 4:

1) What will happen to the Patriots' defense in its first look at an elite offense? New England held its first three opponents to 11.3 points per game, tied for the second-fewest in the league. But EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Josh Freeman are not Matt Ryan, and the Atlanta Falcons average 23.7 points per game.

2) Can the Raiders take advantage of the Redskins' epically bad defense, even if Terrelle Pryor sits out with a concussion? Oakland ranks third in the league in rushing with 148.7 yards per game. Washington has allowed 1,464 yards in its first three games, ahead of the pace set by the historically bad New Orleans Saints defense last season.

3) What, exactly, has happened to Chip Kelly's offense? The Eagles have scored 10 fewer points per game and have been losing the turnover battle since they beat Washington in Week 1. And 14 teams have run more plays than Philadelphia. Picking up the pace won't be easy at altitude against the Broncos.

4) Could this be the week the NFC gains ground on the AFC? The AFC is 11-3 head-to-head against the NFC this season, which is surprising, since the NFC usually is considered to have the better, more dominant teams. Among the interconference games on tap: Patriots at Falcons, Seahawks at Texans, Dolphins at Saints.

5) Can Matt Schaub stop two really troubling trends against the Seahawks, who lead the league in scoring defense? The Texans quarterback threw a pick-six in each of his last two games, and last week, he didn't have a touchdown pass against the Ravens, the fourth time in his past seven games that has happened.

6) Keep an eye on the perhaps-surprising pace of the Ravens-Bills game. Baltimore has run the second-most plays in the league, behind only New England. Buffalo runs the fastest offense in the NFL, taking just 21.4 seconds per play.

7) And when the Ravens do have the ball, can Joe Flacco spark his downfield passing attack? Flacco is just 3 of 15 on passes that travel at least 21 yards in the air, but he'll be facing a Bills secondary that allowed the New York Jets to create a vertical passing game last week.

8) Will the Buccaneers' move to Mike Glennon make any difference? Opposing quarterbacks have an average passer rating of 102.0 against the Arizona Cardinals, who have given up at least 21 points in each of their first three games. Tampa Bay had the NFL's second-worst scoring and total offense under now-benched Josh Freeman this season.

9) Will the Steelers finally get a turnover? This was the first time since 1950 that Pittsburgh didn't force a turnover in its first three games. But Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, who is set to start for the injured Christian Ponder, coughed up 21 interceptions and nine fumbles in 18 games over the past two seasons. The man he's replacing hasn't been any more sure-handed; Ponder has five interceptions this season, third-most behind Eli Manning and Geno Smith. That goes a long way toward explaining why both teams are winless.

10) Can anybody pass-protect? NFL teams combined for 101 sacks in Week 3, the second-most in a single week in league history and the most in a week in 12 years. Bad news for Eli Manning, who was sacked seven times by the Carolina Panthers last Sunday: Justin Houston had 4.5 sacks last week for the Chiefs, and Dontari Poe is a beast getting inside pressure.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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