The last time the Denver Broncos beat the Kansas City Chiefs, Peyton Manning outdueled Alex Smith on a Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium. That was more than eight years ago.
In the teams' 15 meetings since then, the Chiefs have won them all -- tied with the Patriots (Jets) for the longest active win streak for one team versus another. Kansas City’s margin of victory during that span has been an average of more than 11 points per game, although the past three meetings have been one-score games.
Patrick Mahomes hasn’t been part of all of them, although the Chiefs are 11-0 against the Broncos with him at quarterback. Russell Wilson is 1-3 vs. the Chiefs, although his last win against them came as a member of the Seahawks. He was 0-2 against them last season and has never won at Arrowhead.
Wilson turned the ball over three times and was sacked 10 times in the two meetings last season but also played two of his better games against the Chiefs in 2022, accounting for eight touchdowns and giving the Broncos a chance to win both games.
The Chiefs haven’t always made it easy on themselves during their 4-1 start this season but have won four straight and are atop the AFC West. At the other end of the division are the 1-4 Broncos, who have allowed a league-worst 181 points and needed a 21-point comeback just to secure their one victory.
Road teams are actually 3-2 on Thursday nights (2-2 in short weeks) in 2023, so the Broncos can’t be counted out, even as stark as the recent history between these teams has been. They will also meet 17 days later in Denver, but the Chiefs' march for 16 straight wins in the series starts in Week 6.
Here are four things to watch for when the Broncos visit the Chiefs on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Keeping a close eye on Travis Kelce. The All-Pro tight end left Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings with a non-contact ankle injury, putting Chiefs Kingdom into a temporary panic. But Kelce would return, grabbing a touchdown and a few other clutch receptions in the 27-20 victory. Andy Reid said Kelce’s ankle was feeling better early this week than it was postgame, but he's officially questionable for Thursday night. The Chiefs lost Week 1 to the Lions with Kelce out due to a knee injury, reinforcing just how important he is to this offense. Mahomes has attempted more difficult passes and has been less explosive without Kelce on the field. According to Next Gen Stats, Mahomes has averaged +0.25 expected points added on his 112 dropbacks and completed 71.3% of his passes this season with Kelce on the field. In 97 dropbacks without Kelce on the field, Mahomes is averaging +0.04 EPA and completing 65.4%. Denver has defended Kelce pretty well in recent meetings, but the Chiefs sure hope he'll suit up. If not, Mahomes likely will try to spread the ball around, with RBs Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon likely taking on larger roles.
- Broncos need to win the middle 30 minutes. First quarters haven’t been an issue for the Broncos, who have outscored their opponents 41-29 in the initial 15 minutes of games this season. It’s the second and third quarters where things have often fallen apart. Denver has been outscored 97-26 in the “middle 30” of games this season. In Week 2, a 21-3 lead evaporated. Week 3 went from a 14-7 deficit to being down 43 points four seconds into the fourth quarter. Their only win came in Week 4, when they dug themselves a 21-point hole. The Jets slowly chipped away at Denver’s early lead this past Sunday. The bulk of these breakdowns happened in the middle of games. It even happened in the first Broncos-Chiefs game last year, with Kansas City building a 27-0 late in the second quarter. Although Wilson has shown an ability to rally the Broncos, it’s playing with fire if they let the Chiefs dictate the script of the middle portion of the game.
- Denver’s defense will have its hands full either way. Let’s start with the not-terrible news: The Broncos are middle of the pack defensively in terms of sack and interception rates and third-down success. The problem? Most of the other numbers are near or at the bottom. Denver allows a stunning 187.6 rush yards per game, more than 50 more than the next-worst team. The pass defense gives up 8.5 yards per pass attempt, too -- half a yard greater than any other defense. Coordinator Vance Joseph has come under fire for his unit’s play over the past four games, allowing an average of 498 yards and 41 points. How can they possibly stop the Chiefs, even if they’re banged up? As Cardinals defensive coordinator last year, Joseph tried an unusual approach to stopping Mahomes: by blitzing him 59.5% of his dropbacks, per NGS. Joseph’s approach didn’t work, as Mahomes diced up Arizona (30 of 39, 360 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT). Most teams don’t even attempt that -- Mahomes has been blitzed a league-low 20.6% of his dropbacks since 2018 -- but the Vikings had respectable success doing just that, blitzing Mahomes on 46.5% of his dropbacks Sunday. No matter what approach Joseph takes, his defense has struggled with the basics, such as covering receivers and tackling. You can send the house every play if you want, but if those areas aren’t fixed, it won’t matter.
- Chiefs defense can keep strong play going, but Broncos have threats. Kansas City’s defense is by no means a perfect unit, but there’s an argument to be made that it has helped steady the ship while the offense has fallen short of its typical Star Wars-like numbers. The run defense, pass-rush numbers and big plays in the pass game (only one INT) have been lacking. But the Chiefs are top 10 in some pretty important categories, including yards allowed, third-down defense and red-zone efficiency. They’re getting healthier, too, with LB Nick Bolton possibly returning Thursday. But the Broncos have enough playmakers to stress good defenses, especially with RB Javonte Williams back after missing Week 5 and Jaleel McLaughlin giving Denver’s offense a lift as a runner and receiver. WRs Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and Marvin Mims Jr. all have double-digit catches and more than 200 yards receiving, and the emerging Brandon Johnson gives Wilson another viable target. Wilson also has shown more willingness to scramble, something he did effectively vs. Steve Spagnuolo’s defense last year. Kansas City’s corners have been terrific, and the pass rush likely will heat up eventually, but Denver appears to have the firepower to hang for four quarters.