December 29, 2012
DENVER • One team is going for the first seed in the AFC playoffs. The other is in line for the first pick in next year’s NFL draft.
Yes, Sunday’s game featuring Peyton Manning and the Broncos against Jamaal Charles and the Chiefs shows every sign of being one of those routine Week 17 blowouts. Denver is a 16-point favorite.
But if the Chiefs (2-13) are playing like a team that’s packed it in for the season, those 352 yards rushing they amassed last week against Indianapolis certainly don’t show it.
And if the Broncos (12-3) are thinking more about their Super Bowl aspirations than their AFC West rivals, they certainly aren’t telegraphing that.
“We’re all pretty focused here,” receiver Brandon Stokley said. “Just concerned about the Chiefs and trying to play a good game this weekend.”
With a victory, the Broncos would secure at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC and the first-round bye in the playoffs that goes with it. A win, combined with a Houston loss to Indianapolis in a game that ends around the time the Broncos kick off, would make the Broncos the top-seeded team in the conference. The only airplane flight on their potential road to the title would be a trip to Manning’s home town, the Super Bowl city of New Orleans.
Might that compel the Denver quarterback to check the out-of-town scores Sunday?
“No,” he said.
But, he concedes, he’s glad there is something on the line in this game — with a loss and a New England win, Denver could actually fall to the third seed and lose the bye — unlike many final-week scenarios he faced in Indianapolis, where the Colts often had nothing to play for come the last game.
“Another chance to work on something,” said Manning, who insists he is nowhere near the comfort level he’d like to reach with his new team, despite a season in which he has thrown for 4,355 yards and 34 touchdowns. “It’s been such a fast-break year. It’s a great opportunity for us and I think we’re facing a tough challenge.”
Making it even less likely the Broncos will overlook the Chiefs are the memories of the season’s first meeting, five weeks ago in Kansas City.
Denver’s 17-9 victory was a four-quarter struggle and marked the only time during its 10-game winning streak that it has been held under 20 points. Only one other team, Oakland, has held Denver under 30 during that span.
And if that’s not enough, there were the Pro Bowl rosters that came out Thursday.
Led by Manning and Von Miller (17½ sacks), the Broncos placed a respectable five players on the AFC squad.
So did the Chiefs.
“I’ve said it all year and it’s true,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “We don’t look at the record. We look at the tape.”
Last week, Charles — a Pro Bowler — ran for 226 yards, but the Chiefs fell 20-13 to Indianapolis and became the first team in NFL history to amass 350 yards rushing and lose.
Their Achilles’ heel: Turnovers. Brady Quinn threw two interceptions, Charles lost a fumble and the Chiefs fell to minus-25 in turnover differential this season, last place in the NFL.
“You can’t ever do that in a game and expect to come away with a win,” Quinn said.
Like so many in the Chiefs organization, including coach Romeo Crennel, Quinn heads into the final Sunday with no guarantees of being back next season.
Kansas City goes into the season finale tied with Jacksonville for the league’s worst record. If the teams end up tied, Kansas City would get the top pick. But in a fitting symbol of how miserable things are for the Chiefs this year, the top of the 2013 draft is nothing like last year’s, when quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III highlighted a gifted group of incoming rookies.
“This year, there’s no strength at the top,” ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper said recently on a conference call. “You don’t have the quarterback, you don’t have the running back, you don’t have the cornerback or safety.”