KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- There comes a time for every NFL team when potential no longer means much. It's the point when the window of opportunity opens as wide as it ever will stretch and confidence soars with the arrival of fall.
The Kansas City Chiefs find themselves at this very juncture as they prepare to host the Denver Broncos on "Thursday Night Football." If the Chiefs really are going to ascend to the level of championship contender, then this is the game when they better send a resounding message to the biggest bully in their division.
Here's all you have to know about this matchup -- in two numbers:
0: Even more disheartening, that's exactly how many times Kansas City has beaten Denver in the six tries since Manning signed with that franchise in 2012.
"I don't think they necessarily get in our head," Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. "Certainly these guys are the division champs since we've all been here together. ... We've gone in (and) two times having fourth-and-goal and the chance to win the game and didn't get it done. We talk about what we want to do in winning the division and going to the playoffs. And it starts with your division."
Smith added that this contest wasn't a must-win game -- but it's hard to view it as anything other than that.
The Broncos, winners of four straight AFC West championships, came into this season looking as vulnerable as they've ever been since Manning's arrival. He's playing with a rebuilt offensive line. He's trying to acclimate himself to a new offense. He's also facing heavy scrutiny about his arm strength and his ability to fit into the more run-heavy schemes of new head coach Gary Kubiak. This is what happens when you win your first game without scoring an offensive touchdown.
Those factors alone mean the Chiefs have to be salivating about the chance to finally make Manning pay for all the times he's hurt them. As good as the Broncos are defensively -- and they should field an elite unit on that side of the ball all season -- Manning always has been the most dreaded figure for Kansas City to face. When he wasn't exploiting overmatched defensive backs in past showdowns, he was unleashing the ball so quickly that Kansas City's fearsome pass rush couldn't even touch him. The Chiefs can't afford for Manning to be as comfortable in the pocket on Thursday night.
In six games vs. Kansas City since 2012, Manning has averaged 289 passing yards per contest while throwing 16 touchdown passes against just three interceptions. The Chiefs have sacked him a total of three times in those bouts.
"I think everybody knows he's a great player, so you don't have to mention a thing," Reid said. "The whole league knows that he's a great player. You prepare for the team, though, that's what you do. ... The team that you're playing, and try to focus in on that and the battles that you have within that. You try to concentrate and want the players concentrating on that part of it."
The best-case scenario for the Chiefs is something akin to what they did to Tom Brady in an early-season Monday night win over New England last fall. They dominated the Patriots in that 41-14 blowout, harassing Brady so effectively that people legitimately questioned if he was done. It's easy to forget that the Chiefs were that impressive against Brady and Co., given that New England went on to win the Super Bowl. They can be that good against Denver if everything falls into place.
For all the positives Reid has created in his previous two seasons -- he took the team from 2-14 to 11-5 in 2013, and just missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record last year -- there haven't been many signature wins during his tenure. They incredibly blew a 28-point lead in a wild-card playoff loss to Indianapolis in Reid's first year. Last September's win against New England also lost its luster when the Chiefs were sitting at home in January. (The same holds true for Kansas City's win over the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks last November.) Here's something else to know about last year's Chiefs: They lost five games by a margin of eight points or less.
Smith talked this week about how critical it is for the Chiefs not to blow opportunities any more. He didn't mention Denver in particular, but the Broncos had to be on his mind when he offered that assessment. At this stage, a return to the postseason as a wild-card team wouldn't be nearly as thrilling as it was two years ago. That wouldn't be the kind of progress that would make people stand up and take notice of what is happening in Kansas City.
The franchise already has made enough key moves -- from making Smith its franchise quarterback in 2013 to signing wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and giving All-Pro outside linebacker Justin Houston a $101 million deal this offseason. An impressive Week 1 win at Houston also set the tone for this season, as the defense tallied five sacks and a formerly underwhelming passing game improved. Let's also not forget the presence of safety Eric Berry. There isn't a player on that roster who hasn't been moved by how he returned to the team just eight months after being diagnosed with cancer.
So this is now a team brimming with personnel, positive vibes and all sorts of possibilities. The only thing it doesn't have is the credibility that comes with shedding a monkey that has been perched on its back for far too long. That fact could change dramatically on Thursday night, in front of a raucous crowd at Arrowhead Stadium.