In a season when the NFL's prime-time games have been quite lackluster, it's not too early to start the rightful hype and awesome anticipation for this week's "Sunday Night Football" matchup between the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs and one-loss Denver Broncos.
In Denver's first game without head coach John Fox, whose recovery timeline remains uncertain, Peyton Manning provided yet another dynamite effort, overwhelming the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. Now the showdown with K.C. for first place in the AFC West is just six days away.
Truth be told, this weekend's clash at Mile High absolutely is a must-win game for the Broncos. While I'm a believer in the Chiefs, the outside perception is that they have a Cinderella feel to them -- everyone's waiting for the magic to wear off. They will head to Denver with a focused attitude, but they aren't expected to win. And despite the venue -- despite Denver owning an amazing and pronounced home-field advantage, especially in prime time -- I'm not convinced the Broncos will be able to hold off the Chiefs.
You read that correctly.
A few things are at play here.
Manning clearly isn't 100 percent physically. He was knocked around a bunch by San Diego, most notably taking a low hit late in the fourth quarter from Chargers defensive end Corey Liuget that aggravated a prior right ankle injury. Manning said after the game that he was in pain and pretty sore. Sure looked like it. And for him to admit that to reporters is pretty telling. Fortunately for Denver, an MRI on Monday showed no new damage to the ankle, so Manning is good to go against K.C. Still, this furthers a disconcerting trend.
Manning has been bruised and battered over the past month by the Jaguars, Colts and Chargers. While the Broncos still won two of those three games, the one defeat -- at Indianapolis -- can be directly attributed to pressure applied on Manning. The Colts brought heat all throughout that Week 7 game, sacking Manning four times and hitting him plenty more. One play that particularly stood out was Robert Mathis' jarring, safety-causing lick; Manning clearly was impacted, as he threw ducks for the remainder of the game. This underlines an inconvenient truth about the Broncos juggernaut: The offensive line is vulnerable, especially so since Ryan Clady went down with a season-ending foot injury.
Now Manning must deal with the Chiefs, who not only boast the NFL's best pass rush but have the players to frustrate and dominate without blitzing. The Chiefs have racked up a league-high 36 sacks, with outside linebackers Justin Houston (11 sacks) and Tamba Hali (nine) leading the charge.
When I talked to Hali a few weeks ago on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," he stressed how difficult it is for a team to game plan against the K.C. pass rush. How do you employ a double-team with a true presence coming off the edge on each side? What do you do about second-year nose tackle Dontari Poe, an immovable (and unblockable) object in the middle? The ability to pressure Manning without blitzing gives Kansas City's very solid defensive backfield a chance to contain Denver's dynamic receiving weapons (Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas). Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton will have his unit ready. K.C. stifles opposing quarterbacks, yielding the NFL's lowest figures in opponent passer rating (67.8) and completion percentage (53.5). And I'll be surprised if Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno can get going against Poe, Derrick Johnson and the Chiefs' run defense.
If Manning is healthy (or healthy enough), this will be a classic confrontation between an offense filled with the aforementioned galaxy of stars and a defense that has allowed just nine touchdown passes in nine games while yielding a league-low 12.3 points per contest. The Broncos continued their aerial assault on the NFL in the 28-20 win over the Chargers on Sunday, with Manning shredding San Diego for 330 passing yards and four touchdowns (without a single pick). The Broncos now have scored 371 points this year -- the most through the first nine games of a season in NFL history -- while easily pacing the league with an average of 458.7 yards per game.
It goes without saying that this will be the Chiefs' toughest test yet, the truest challenge to their unblemished mark. But beyond Kansas City's stingy, playmaking defense, its offense is built to beat the Broncos.
Jamaal Charles is putting together a sensational season, leading the Chiefs in rushing yards and receptions while ranking second in the NFL with 1,114 yards from scrimmage. He can run on Denver, moving the chains, controlling the clock and -- most importantly -- keeping Manning off the field. Charles also will take short passes from Alex Smith and make big gains.
And yes, Alex Smith is a positive.
Smith told me last Monday on "Schein on Sports" that he truly doesn't care about "QB ranking or fantasy stats" -- and he shouldn't. Smith is one of the most self-aware athletes you'll ever encounter. He is comfortable in his own skin, but he still plays with a chip on his shoulder from past experiences.
Smith really only cares about one thing: winning. And that's something he's done plenty of lately, compiling a 29-6-1 mark in the last 36 NFL games he's started. Smith told me about the quick bond he formed with new coach Andy Reid; it began with their first phone conversation, when Reid quizzed Smith on a play. (Smith, of course, had the answer Reid was looking for.) These two are attached at the hip, seeing the game the same way. You can call Smith a game manager or question his arm. I call Smith a winner, someone who doesn't make mistakes with the game on the line. This is a guy who simply will not turn over the ball, will not give Manning extra opportunities. Smith -- reflecting the Chiefs as a whole right now -- oozes confidence.
The West is the AFC's best division, with the Chiefs and Broncos headlining conference chatter. The division winner is in prime position to get the No. 1 seed (and accompanying first-round bye), with the runner-up likely dropping to a No. 5 slot. Teams routinely make Super Bowl runs from the wild-card round -- see: the 2012 Baltimore Ravens -- but I believe it's important for Denver to win the division, given Manning's health concerns and age. Meanwhile, Kansas City obviously desires home-field advantage in the playoffs, given that Arrowhead Stadium represents the second-best environment in the NFL (behind CenturyLink Field in Seattle). The venue is a true game-changer for the Chiefs.
Though Manning and the Broncos will be the hosts of this Sunday's epic AFC West showdown, Kansas City is getting Denver at the right time to make a statement.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.