One positive to take away from Sunday’s sloppy 28-20 win over the San Diego Chargers is that the Denver Broncos can win road games against average teams despite failing to create a turnover on defense and finishing with a negative turnover margin.
This result may be considered a good trait, especially come playoff time, however it leaves one colossal question lingering as the team enters its pivotal AFC West showdown this weekend against Kansas City — can Denver’s defense force a turnover against the league’s best game manager?
The pundits can talk X’s and O’s all they’d like this week, but what will likely determine the outcome of this closely-contested primetime showdown is turnovers. Who can protect the ball and who can force the opponent to make a mistake in a critical situation?
So far this season, the turnover battle has been Denver’s weakest area as a whole and something that needs improvement in the final seven regular season contests as a primer for the playoffs, where turnover margin is the most important stat in crowning a Super Bowl champion.
The Broncos, who have finished only one game with a +2 turnover margin during their torrid 8-1 start, are likely to turn the ball over at least once, if not more, against the vaunted Chiefs defense that has copious amounts of ballhawks — safeties Quintin Demps and Eric Berry, cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith, and pass rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston (20 combined sacks) — all of whom have multiple turnovers this season.
Not to mention, Kansas City’s defense boasts infamous Bronco-killer Derrick Johnson, who leads the team with 60 solo tackles and 5 tackles for loss, and the emerging defensive tackle phenom Dontari Poe.
All of this is entirely independent of what will actually happen Sunday when the league’s highest-scoring offense takes on the league’s best scoring defense in what is climaxing to be a classic battle of offense versus defense.
Nonetheless, turnovers will still prove to be the key, which means the Broncos must pressure quarterback Alex Smith out of the pocket and force him to throw the ball deep down field, where he is less effective and more likely to make a crucial mistake.
However, the first step is trying to shut down Jamaal Charles, who is enjoying a career season and will likely compete against Peyton Manning for league MVP honors at the end of the season. If Charles runs wild on the Broncos front seven, then it could be a long day for the defensive unit as a whole, as it will give Smith the cushion he’s been working with all season and that no opponent has been able to take away from the Chiefs thus far.
Denver’s chances of winning the game, and taking control of the AFC West, are significantly higher if Smith is tasked with having to beat them without a supporting ground attack. If this scenario does play out Sunday, then it will obviously be favorable for the home team; however, it won’t necessarily mean the Broncos will walk away victorious.
If the fumbling problem on offense carries over — no pun intended — into this weekend’s matchup, then the Broncos defense will have to find a way to compensate, regardless of how Smith and Charles are performing.
What the Broncos will need is tight, pressing coverage up front in the secondary, denying the Kansas City wideouts anything short and placing the onus on the Chiefs to beat them deep, if Charles can’t get going.
When, and if, Smith to take a few chances down the field, the defense must capitalize on what has to be considered their most favorable matchup — Chiefs wide receivers vs. Denver’s corners, even without Champ Bailey — this week.
A Denver interception or two — or a forced fumble — will change the complexion of the game greatly, because it will pin the Chiefs defense on short rest against Manning and will create a situation where Alex Smith and Co. will have to play from behind, something they aren’t quite used to doing this season.
Regardless of how many points are scored and who comes away victorious, the first of two heavyweight bouts between the Broncos and Chiefs won’t uproot the old phrase “defense wins championships.” At the end of the day, if Kansas City wins the turnover battle 1-0 — similar to what San Diego did to Denver this past weekend — then the results won’t be too kind for Denver.
In order to keep playing at this level, with this much at stake week in and week out, turnovers must be the name of the game for the Broncos.