For the first time this season, both the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are coming off losses, and both were more disappointing than the average NFL defeat.
The AFC West rivals will meet for the second time in three weeks Sunday in Kansas City with each looking to take control of the division and avoid another week of looking for a bounce-back game.
“I know, look, everybody’s going to ride that roller coaster,” Broncos interim coach Jack Del Rio said. “Last week we’re the greatest, this week not so good. We’ll just keep working at it.”
A number of complicated scenarios exist for each team to clinch a postseason spot with a win this week.
While the Broncos (9-2) might be feeling the majority of the disappointment after matching a franchise-record 24-point collapse Sunday in New England, the Chiefs (9-2) are likely feeling the brunt of the pressure.
They’ve dropped their first two games in consecutive weeks, including their first at home in Sunday’s last-minute 41-38 loss to San Diego. They’ve also lost consecutive games at Arrowhead Stadium to the Broncos.
The more alarming trend might be a defense that has allowed season-high point totals the last two weeks. After allowing over 17 points for the first time this season in a 27-17 loss Nov. 17 at Denver that didn’t exactly raise huge concerns, Sunday’s game certainly exposed some holes - and physically created them with injuries.
“Just like we were doing when we were winning, we need to go back and see what’s up and correct it and just keep going to work,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “It’s not the end of the world. But we do have a sense of urgency this week to get the things corrected that we see on tape.”
Kansas City has two sacks in its last four games after piling up 35 through its first seven. Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers combined for 715 passing yards in two weeks after the Chiefs had held each of their previous nine opponents under 300 yards through the air.
They now face Manning again, and this time around Kansas City won’t have Tamba Hali (9.0) and Justin Houston (11.0) - who account for over half of the team’s sacks - on the field together.
Hali suffered a sprained ankle last week, but he went through practice Friday without feeling pain and will play. Houston dislocated his right elbow against the Chargers and it’s unclear when he’ll return.
“Losing that caliber of players, we have to step it up, make something happen,” Chiefs cornerback Brandon Flowers said. “That’s what we get paid to do.”
Coach Andy Reid said starting defensive tackle Mike DeVito will likely return after missing last week’s game with a knee injury.
The Chiefs are still best in the AFC in scoring defense, allowing 16.3 points per game. They’re also holding opponents to an NFL-low 29.1 percent on third down.
The Broncos offense, however, has been another kind of elite, averaging a league-best 451.5 yards and 39.0 points, 11.2 points ahead of No. 2 Seattle. Their 48.3 percent third-down conversion rate tops the league, as does their red-zone efficiency (78.7).
Manning is within two touchdown passes of breaking his franchise record of 37. Tying that mark Sunday likely would have helped avoid a 34-31 overtime loss to the Patriots.
He finished with a season-worst 70.4 passer rating with a season-low 19 completions on 36 attempts for a season-low 150 yards.
Matching a season-high four turnovers as a team was likely the bigger issue.
“Hated the way that ended, not getting a chance to get our hands on the ball,” Manning said. “We helped them with some short fields. It’s hard to do that to our defense.”
That hasn’t been an issue for Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith or the team as a whole. They’ve turned the ball over a league-low 11 times while creating an AFC-best 24 takeaways.
Smith has thrown five interceptions, and his 25 picks since 2010 are the fewest among quarterbacks with 1,100 passing attempts.
The Broncos aren’t without injury issues of their own.
Knowshon Moreno ran for a career-best 224 yards on a career-high 37 carries against the Patriots. Though he isn’t certain to play, an MRI showed a right ankle injury suffered at the end of the game caused no significant damage.
Cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s jammed right shoulder also wasn’t serious.
Del Rio said he expects cornerback Champ Bailey (foot) and tight end Julius Thomas (knee) to return after both missed the New England. Julius Thomas is tied with Demaryius Thomas for the team lead with 10 touchdown catches.
Starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, however, has been placed on season-ending injured reserve with a dislocated hip.