DENVER – Five things to watch as the Broncos wrap up the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday:
1. THE TEXANS AND SEEDING.
It’s not that this is the most important aspect of Sunday; it’s just that the Texans play first, and their fate will determine what the Broncos have on the line, and whether they’re playing for home-field advantage all the way through the postseason or merely a first-round bye.
The seeding itself probably isn’t all that important; if the Broncos are forced to play at Houston in the postseason — and if both teams win Sunday, it could only be in the AFC Championship — they’d be going to a climate-controlled environment in which Peyton Manning is 7-2. (And if the roof at Reliant Stadium is not closed, it means the temperature is between 50 and 80 degrees and there is no chance of rain, according to the Texans’ roof policy. The Texans have played 13 consecutive games with the roof closed.)
What matters is avoiding a home game with New England — which the Broncos do with a win over Kansas City, no matter what the Texans do against Indianapolis before Denver’s kickoff.
2. JUST DON’T GET HURT.
Would you rather the Broncos win and lose a starter to injury or lose and be healthy? The answer is obvious, even though the Broncos would be forced to play in the divisional round and could have two road games separating them from the Super Bowl.
Besides, losing a bye isn’t all bad. Since 2005 home teams are just 15-13 in divisional round games, Manning is just 1-3 coming off a first-round bye and won his only Super Bowl without a bye; John Fox is 0-1 after a first-round bye and won his only conference championship without the one-week respite.
A loss would cause panic. But it shouldn’t — unless it’s accompanied by the loss of a crucial player.
3. CONTAINING JAMAAL CHARLES.
If Brady Quinn could get the football to Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs’ passing game would be of greater concern to the Broncos. But since Quinn permanently replaced Matt Cassel as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback in Week 12 against Denver (Quinn started two games in October before being concussed and giving way to Cassel), the Chiefs have the fewest passing yards and touchdown passes in the AFC, only the Vikings and Cardinals, respectively, are worse on a league-wide basis. Not having the injured receiver Dwayne Bowe hasn’t helped, but the Chiefs weren’t exactly channeling the Air Coryell Chargers even when Quinn could throw to Bowe.
So that puts everything in the hands of Charles, who had 226 of the Chiefs’ 352 rushing yards last week, has the only 100-yard rushing game against the Broncos during their 10-game winning streak and has averaged 130.75 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry in his last four games against the Broncos. There’s little reason for the Broncos to play much of the game in anything but a 4-3 base formation, and look for the safeties to be more aggressive in lurching forward to try and plug as many possible lanes for Charles, Peyton Hillis and Dexter McCluster as possible.
4. OVERCONFIDENCE? UNLIKELY.
The Broncos are 16.5-point favorites — which, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, is the largest point spread in their favor, just ahead of 16-point spreads against the Raiders in 2006 and the Chargers in 1998. It’s even more odd considering how the last game between the Broncos and Chiefs transpired; the Chiefs ran consistently, controlled the tempo, got their offensive linemen out on sweeps and runs that were as subtle as a jackhammer and generated enough of a pass rush to disrupt the timing of Denver’s passing game. At one point in the fourth quarter, Manning threw seven consecutive incompletions.
So if there’s any overconfidence, it belongs to Las Vegas. You can’t find it in the Broncos’ locker room, not when they remember that the start-to-finish resistance the Chiefs mustered was only matched in the last 10 games by the Bengals — who, not coincidentally, are one of just two playoff-bound teams the Broncos have faced during their winning streak.
5. NUMBERS WATCH.
For the numbers maven within you:
… Peyton Manning needs 172 yards to break the Broncos’ single-season passing yardage record (4,526, Jay Cutler, 2008), eight completions to break the completion standard (384, Cutler, 2008), and with a typical game in completion percentage and rating will surpass the records set by Brian Griese (66.7 percentage in 2002, 102.9 rating in 2000). The only record he won’t set is yardage per attempt; barring an outrageous day he won’t approach record-holder Jacky Lee (8.65, 1965); if he keeps his current rate of 7.86 yards per attempt, he’ll rank ninth in team history, but that owes to the controlled passing of this era.
… Eric Decker is just 12 yards away from the first 1,000-yard season of his career, which would give the Broncos their first pair of 1,000-yard receivers since 2004 (Rod Smith and Ashley Lelie).
… Decker is two catches away from providing the Broncos their first pair of 80-catch receivers in the same season since 2008 (Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal). Demaryius Thomas has 87 catches already.
… With one touchdown catch, Thomas will post the Broncos’ 15th season with at least 10 touchdown receptions, and the team’s first with two players that caught at least 10 touchdown passes since 1998 (Shannon Sharpe and Ed McCaffrey). Decker already has 11 grabs.
… Every sack Von Miller gets extends his franchise record beyond 17.5. The only question is whether he can catch Houston’s J.J. Watt (20.5) and San Francisco’s Aldon Smith (19.5) for the season-long sack lead. Of the three, Smith appears to have the inside track on the sack crown, since his 49ers face the hapless Cardinals on Sunday.
…The team sack record isn’t in jeopardy (57, 1984), but the Broncos lead the league with 48 sacks this year and with four will match the second-best total in club history (52, 1991). With three sacks, the Broncos will boast the highest total for any NFL club in the last four seasons.
… John Fox goes for his 100th NFL win as a head coach Sunday. If he gets it, he would also finish with the best regular-season record of his career.
…Only a disastrous day will keep punter Britton Colquitt from shattering his franchise-record net punting average of 40.2, set last year; he has a 42.2-yard average heading into Sunday. He should have received greater Pro Bowl consideration, since his net punting average is the second-best in the AFC and is 1.9 yards better than older brother Dustin Colquitt, the Pro Bowl representative.
PREDICTION: Broncos 31, Chiefs 10.