DENVER (AP) – The Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are a lot alike.
Scuffling ground games.
Problems protecting the passer.
Quarterbacks seeking to regain their pre-injury form.
Both teams are 7-3.
One averages 22.2 points, the other 23.9.
One surrenders 18.7 points a game, the other 18.9.
The difference when they play Sunday night in Denver could come down to this: the Broncos are fresher .
Benefiting from their late bye week, several players are healthy again, most notably cornerback Aqib Talib (back), defensive end Derek Wolfe (elbow), linebacker Brandon Marshall (hamstring), fullback Andy Janovich (hand) and quarterback Trevor Siemian (shoulder).
The Chiefs are coming off a 19-17 loss at home to Tampa Bay that ended the five-game winning streak they put together coming off their bye in Week 5.
With starters Talib and Wolfe back and DeMarcus Ware ready to increase his workload now that he’s been back for a month from a broken arm, Denver’s defense is at full strength for the first time since the opener. The mood around team headquarters reflects a growing confidence they can repeat last year’s spectacular stretch run that resulted in a championship.
“I’m back, baby!” Talib declared as he prepared to end his three-game hiatus. “My legs feel extra fresh and I just feel like super-fresh right now.”
Wolfe missed Denver’s last game with a hyperextended right elbow.
“I hated it,” Wolfe said. “I don’t like watching the game in the first place. I like playing it. Standing on the sideline is miserable anyway. Just standing there for three hours isn’t fun.”
The banged-up Chiefs aren’t in nearly as good of shape as the Broncos.
Missing his third straight game is wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who hurt his groin on Nov. 6 against Jacksonville and hasn’t played since. His absence has coincided with a pronounced drop in production by the offense.
Outside linebacker Dee Ford, tied for the NFL lead with 10 sacks, is out with a pulled hamstring and defensive tackle Jaye Howard is out with a hip flexor.
The Chiefs hope to get top cornerback Marcus Peters, who has eight takeaways, back from a hip pointer.
“We’d love to have them all,” Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. “Three weeks ago, we’d have loved to have Justin (Houston), but it is what it is. … We can’t cancel. We can’t completely change our system, so we adjust.”
The NFL originally had the Patriots-Jets game slated for Sunday night, but switched it to this terrific rivalry, which Kansas City leads 57-55.
“You have two great teams going at it with the same record – that’s what the people want to see,” Von Miller said. “We’re going to give it to them playing a big-time game.”
Other things to watch for in the showdown where the winner can set its sights on pursuing a division crown and the loser might have to scramble for a wild card:
MORE AIR POWER: The Broncos’ signing of Marlon Brown this week shows how much they want to use three-wide receiver sets. They have seven receivers and have been activating six most games. The problem is that opponents have sent extra pass rushers at Siemian when the Broncos get out of their two-tight end look.
MORE MOBILITY: Before he got hurt in Week 4, Siemian regularly escaped pressure in the pocket and ran for first downs when his receivers were covered. “You didn’t see that the last three or four weeks,” coach Gary Kubiak said. “So, hopefully with that freshness, you’ll start to see some more of that again.”
SLUMPING SMITH: Alex Smith has struggled in his two games since sustaining a head injury in Indianapolis, leading Chiefs fans to pine for backup Nick Foles. Coach Andy Reid insists Smith’s job isn’t in jeopardy. However, Reid added: “I’m just worried that we execute better, and that’s all the way around.”
STARK REMINDER: As far as locker room motivations, this one is much better than Jack Del Rio’s axe and stump in Jacksonville: The Broncos installed a trophy case with their three Lombardi trophies. “Not that we need a reminder, but it’s cool to see them in there,” Siemian said. “And that’s the goal, right?”
RED ZONE MENANCE: The Chiefs have seven takeaways inside their 20-yard line. “Great secondaries, when they get their hands on the ball, they make you pay,” Kubiak said. “Good secondaries knock balls down and you go to the next play.” K.C. has scored 72 points off turnovers, second to Denver’s 93 points.
– By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Sports Writer
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