This is the sixth of a 13-part series breaking down the off-season moves, coaching changes, draft and 2015 outlook for each opponent of the Kansas City Chiefs, counting down to their foe for Week 1.
Today we look at a team that, with all apologies to the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, has been the Chiefs most hated rival since the 1980’s when John Elway was quarterback through today when Peyton Manning is Public Enemy #1 on the streets of KC – the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are favored to win their fifth consecutive AFC West title in 2015, but it’s not the slam dunk that it has been the last few years.
Team: Denver Broncos
2014 Record: 12-5 (1st in AFC West, lost in divisional round of playoffs)
All-time Chiefs Series Record: 56-53-0, 0-1 in playoffs
Last Regular Season Meeting: Broncos won 29-16 at Arrowhead (11/30/2014)
Last Postseason Meeting: Denver won 14-10 at Arrowhead in divisional round of the playoffs because Marty started Elvis Grbac instead of Rich Gannon at QB. (1/4/98)
2015 Schedule: Week 2 at Arrowhead, Week 10 in Denver
Top 5 players: QB Peyton Manning, WR Demaryius Thomas, LB Von Miller, WR Emmanuel Sanders, DL DeMarcus Ware
Notable draft picks: LB Shane Ray, T Ty Sambrailo, TE Jeff Heuerman (torn ACL, will miss season)
Notable offseason additions: HC Gary Kubiak, DC Wade Phillips, TE Owen Daniel,
Notable offseason departures: TE Julius Thomas, OL Orlando Franklin, WR Wes Welker, S Rahim Moore, C/G Manny Ramirez, T Ryan Clady (our for year with torn ACL)
No one can accuse the Denver Broncos of invoking moderate opinions from prognosticators on their 2015 season. Like a Republican debate, sentiments that are 180-degrees apart fly when pundits weigh in on how successful Denver will be.
Some believe the Broncos will remain elite in the AFC for one more year and play in the AFC Championship Game or beyond. Others think Denver will be standing outside the playoffs looking in as future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning stumbles to the end of a great career after hanging on too long to grab one last NFL record. Manning only needs 2,148 yards to break Brett Favre’s career passing yards record.
At least it’s easy to figure out where Chiefs fans land on this side of the debate. General Manager John Elway came to a “mutual agreement to part ways with” (i.e. fired) John Fox – the coach that won four straight division titles, went 7-1 against the Chiefs, and took Denver to a Super Bowl in 2013 – because Elway felt the team didn’t “go out kicking and screaming” in their last two playoff losses. Chiefs fans were thrilled to see Fox go to Chicago to coach the Bears. Elway then hired his best buddy, Gary Kubiak, to take Denver to the next level.
People outside of Denver are wondering exactly when Elway saw Kubiak cultivate a killer instinct as a head coach? Kubiak sports a career record of 61-64 in eight seasons as head coach of the Houston Texans. Other than a 12-4 record in 2012 when several Texan players had career years, that franchise was a model of mediocrity during Kubiak’s tenure. Maybe it was during Houston’s 2013 season when he went a killer 2-11 and was fired before the season even ended?
Kubiak was brought in mostly because he is Elway’s buddy, but also partially because of his extensive background in former Bronco coach Mike Shanahan’s offense. However, the Broncos finished 2014 as the #2-ranked offense in the league with Manning pretty much running his own offense, so it remains to be seen what difference he’ll make in the Mile High City. In addition, could Manning and Kubiak eventually butt heads about the direction of the offense?
Manning will cart his increasingly aged arm out on the field and, just by sheer will alone of picking up Favre’s career passing yardage record and possibly tying his little brother Eli’s two Super Bowl championships, will perform better than 23 other NFL starting quarterbacks. Unfortunately, three of his first five games are against Baltimore (at home) and two road games against the Chiefs and Raiders. All three teams have, or are expected to have, fierce pass rushes and Manning will have a bullseye on his jersey.
Kubiak has said that he will lean on the Bronco running game heavily, which means C.J. Anderson will have to continue his meteoric rise in 2015. Anderson came out of nowhere and made a Pro Bowl basically by what he did in the last seven games (1,173 total yards, 10 TDs). However, the wild card in the mix is third-year pro, Montee Ball, whose 2014 season was derailed by an appendectomy and groin injury. The former Wisconsin Badger is a talented back and was Denver’s second-round pick in 2013. Look for Ball to possibly regain the starting job he lost to Anderson due to injury.
Denver may not be as loaded at wide receiver as they’ve been in the past, but that only means their Pro Bowlers don’t run five spots deep. Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are as good of a 1-2 tandem as there is in the league. The loss of tight end Julius Thomas to Jacksonville and the season-ending injury to rookie Jeff Heuerman could be devastating because the tight end position is crucial in every Peyton Manning offense. Kubiak brought in veteran Owen Daniels to man the position, but the nine-year veteran’s best days are behind him.
All of the offensive promise is predicated on an injury-depleted offensive line that could be starting three rookies on opening day. Most importantly, two rookies, Ty Sambrailo and Max Garcia at left tackle and guard respectively, will be protecting Manning’s blind side. Maybe worse, rookie Matt Paradis will line up at center making line calls in the Manning spazzy “’Omaha’-changing-plays-at-the-line-of-scrimmage” offense. Good luck with that when you guys come to Arrowhead on a Thursday night prime time game with Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Dee Ford coming off the edges.
Defensively, the Broncos brought back former head coach and defensive whiz, Wade Phillips, as defensive coordinator to install a 3-4 base defense. They may not have as many recognizable names on defense as they have had in the past, but they still have elite linebackers, Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, creating havoc in opposing backfields. Putting those two back at outside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme they have thrived in probably means at least 10-15 sacks for each this year.
Former Kansas Jayhawks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, Jr. man the outside corner spots and while Talib makes flashier plays when he is motivated, Harris is as consistently solid as they come in the NFL.
As long as Manning is at the helm on offense, his defenses get little to no press but if the Broncos win the AFC West, the thinking here is that this team might have a top-ranked defense that will surprise.
Bottom line: The Chiefs fan in me has to guard against my heart telling my head that this is the year Denver implodes and their season ends with a dejected Elway sitting alone in his darkened stadium suite in a dirty wife-beater t-shirt and a weeks’ worth of beard stubble on his chin, bitterly drinking a scotch and water wondering how they finished in last place in the AFC West. But my head tells me that as long as Manning stays upright, the Broncos should win 10 to 11 games and be a factor in the AFC playoff run.
I will say that I do think this is the year they do not win the West, however. While the Chiefs and Ravens celebrate a bye week in the first round of the playoffs, a wild card bow-out to AFC East champion New England seems to be poetic justice for Manning’s Hall of Fame career.
Previous articles in the series:
Oakland Raiders (Weeks 13 & 17)
Cleveland Browns (Week 16)
Baltimore Ravens (Week 15)
San Diego Chargers (Weeks 11 & 14)
Buffalo Bills (Week 12)