DENVER — The Kansas City Chiefs are taking the bubble wrap off rookie QB Patrick Mahomes II in their regular-season finale at Denver, where the Broncos are taking another look at Paxton Lynch , who's in danger of being their most disappointing first-round pick since Marcus Nash in 1998.
Mahomes, chosen 10th overall in the 2017 draft out of Texas Tech, spent all season watching and waiting while Alex Smith led the league with a 104.7 rating and topped 4,000 yards passing for the first time in his 13th NFL season — and likely his last in Kansas City.
Having clinched the middling AFC West again, the Chiefs (9-6) have the luxury of sneaking a peek at their future QB while resting other starters and treating Sunday's game as a bye before the playoffs begin next week.
"We're in a position where we can do that," coach Andy Reid said. "It gives the kid some experience, that's the reason. Listen, the Broncos are a good football team, real good defense. It'll be a great experience to play against that crew."
Denver's defense is ranked second, behind only Minnesota's.
"There is nothing else better than getting to go against the best," Mahomes said as he prepared for his first NFL start.
"I'm not eager to play the second guy," said Broncos star linebacker Von Miller . "He is the guy of the future, though. So, it's good to go and play against him for the future. But you just would like the circumstances to be totally different.
"You would like this game to mean more than what it means, and you would like for all of the starters to play. I would like a lot of different stuff to happen in 2017 and it didn't happen."
The Broncos' offense was dismal with a rotation of quarterbacks, poor play up front and a lack of depth behind wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and running back C.J. Anderson , both of whom can reach 1,000 yards Sunday.
Denver (5-10) is missing out on the playoff party for a second straight season.
They flopped under rookie head coach Vance Joseph, losing eight in a row for the first time in a half century, and a so-far dismal draft class led by Garett Bolles, who leads the league in holding penalties.
Lynch, Denver's top pick last year, sprained his left ankle in his only start against Oakland on Nov. 26, when he threw for just 41 yards, and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said that Lynch was still gimpy at practice this week.
Joseph said he doesn't care if Lynch is facing backups, "you need something to go on. The more he plays, the better he is going to get. I think it's one part evaluation, but it's one part getting him ready for his future, also. It's not a waste at all.
"It's going to be good for him to go play for the evaluation and for the personal growth as a quarterback."
Other subplots Sunday as the Chiefs seek their first five-game winning streak over the Broncos since 1970-73:
MOVING ON: Lynch may be down to his last chance to impress the Broncos. General manager John Elway and his top deputy Matt Russell began their tour of college QBs on the sideline at the Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho, where they scouted Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen.
"I didn't even know they were out there doing any of that," Lynch said. "I really wasn't paying any attention to it."
The Broncos could be moving on from any or all of their QBs, including Trevor Siemian, in 2018.
"I'll say this, we've had three starters this year," Joseph said. "It's not ideal at all. We have to fix and rectify that position."
HOT SEAT: An even bigger debate in Denver is whether Joseph deserves a second season and if Elway will be looking for his fourth head coach in five seasons.
Of the six job openings in 2016, Joseph inherited what was largely considered the best situation with the Broncos coming off a 9-7 season.
While the Broncos were nose-diving to their worst season since their awful AFL days, Doug Marrone's Jaguars, Sean McVay's Rams, Anthony Lynn's Chargers and Sean McDermott's Bills all wrangled for playoff berths and Kyle Shanahan's 49ers overcame an 0-9 stumble to win five of their past six.
IN THE HUNT: With 1,292 yards rushing, Chiefs rookie running back Kareem Hunt is 13 yards behind Todd Gurley and a yard ahead of Le'Veon Bell for the NFL rushing title. The Rams, Steelers and Chiefs are all in the playoffs, so there's no telling how much work any of the three running backs will get.
ON THE RISE: The Chiefs went through their own prolonged slump after a 5-0 start. They lost six of seven, including four straight, before bouncing back to win their past three games and clinch another division crown.
"We flopped there for a few games and weren't looking too good, so I'm proud of everybody sticking together," Reid said.