ENGLEWOOD — Flying along at 30,000 feet above sea level, Broncos punt returner Isaiah McKenzie had an epiphany.
Its name: Tyreek Hill.
“I was watching on a plane when the Chiefs game was on (Sunday night). And when Tyreek took that one back, I was like, ‘Nah, this can’t be happening,’” McKenzie told me at his locker inside the Broncos’ Dove Valley headquarters on Monday. “Then I had a thought of my own, ‘Why not me?’
“It’s the second quarter of the season now. The first quarter was all right for me. But these next four games — the second quarter — I’m taking it by storm.”
There’s a storm brewin', all right. He wears a No. 84 jersey and counts a Kansas City Chief as his personal motivation. Inside a loud, proud division that’s threatening to evolve into a two-horse race between the Chiefs (5-0) and Broncos (3-1, with games against the winless Giants and one-win Chargers up next) is a budding rivalry between a pair of electric returnmen.
For the Chiefs, it’s Hill. Listed at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Hill changed the landscape of the AFC all by himself. Yes, he's been that dynamic. Last year the Chiefs took a chance on a prospect with Olympic speed and a despicable backstory. It's paid off bigly.
For the Broncos, it’s McKenzie. Listed at 5-7, 173 pounds, McKenzie was Denver’s response to Hill. "Juice," Vance Joseph calls it. He’s a punt returner who’s capable of busting off an 80-yard score each time he touches the ball.
“Tyreek Hill was a Pro Bowler last year for special teams. I feel like I can do the same thing this year, if not even more,” said McKenzie, a rookie whose 11-yards-per-return average ranks fifth in the NFL. “I feel like I’ve got to beat him out. He’s my competition for the Pro Bowl. I’ve got to keep chasing him until I get it."
After a pause to steady his bearings, much like Hill catching his balance as he turned the corner on an 82-yard return that sealed the Chiefs' win against the Texans, McKenzie added: “As I watched that game, I was so mad it’s my bye week. I wanted to play right then. I’m ready right now.”
Are the Chiefs finally, truly for real? The results say yes. On its way to the NFL’s final unbeaten record, Kansas City thumped playoff hopefuls New England, Philadelphia and Washington with an efficient offense, right-place/right-time defense and Hill’s world-class speed on special teams. There’s not much to not like — aside from K.C.'s history — which makes it tough to trust the Chiefs at any point in time. No team wins September Super Bowls like the Chiefs. And no team finds more interesting ways to lose than the Chiefs.
“It’s us and the Chiefs,” said Broncos pass-rusher and Kansas City native Shane Ray, whose scheduled return from a wrist injury is the first Broncos-Chiefs matchup, on Oct. 30. “That’s what it looks right now. That’s kind of what I’m thinking it’s going to be, honestly.”
The Broncos can’t afford to look past Eli Manning and the Giants on Sunday.
But we can!
When the Chiefs selected Hill in the 2016 draft, yesterday’s lunch crawled into the back of my throat. Two years earlier Hill had pleaded guilty to physically abusing his pregnant girlfriend. Now it’s every football Sunday when “Ty-reek! Ty-reek!” accompanies the Tomahawk chop inside Arrowhead Stadium.
On the field “we’re kind of similar, you know? We’re both fast. We’re both quick. We’re both little receivers. We both do it a little different,” McKenzie said. “I look at him and say, ‘I can do the same thing he’s doing. Why not me next?’”
Through the first four games of their rookie seasons, Hill’s punt return numbers (11 attempts, 13.36 yards per return, two touchdowns) edge McKenzie’s (11, 11.09, zero TDs). Hill stands as the undisputed return champ of the NFL. Until McKenzie takes one to the house, it's a one-way rivalry.
“I’m planning on getting two this week. He got one, I’m getting two,” McKenzie said. “I want to be first in touchdowns, first in yardage, first in everything.”
OK, let's get down to the nitty gritty: Who’s faster — Tyreek or Isaiah?
“My boy right here,” Broncos special teams ace Cody Latimer said, nodding toward the locker next to his.
“Me. It’s my start. He has to catch me,” McKenzie said. “My start is ridiculous. Then he’s got to come get me. If he doesn’t come get me after the first 20 (yards), I’m throwing up a peace sign.”
Ready, set, fly.