KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)The Denver Broncos are on their sixth head or interim coach since their most recent win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Perhaps Sean Payton will be the one to finally end the losing streak.
The Broncos head to Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night for the first of two games against Kansas City this season toting one of the most incredible skids in a league that prides itself on its parity.
Denver has not beaten the Chiefs since Week 2 of the 2015 season, when Gary Kubiak – and Peyton Manning – proceeded to lead the Broncos to a victory in the Super Bowl.
“They do a lot of things well. Quite honestly, they’ve found ways to win even when it hasn’t gone as well as they would have hoped,” Payton said of the Chiefs, “and that’s the sign of a really good football team – a championship team.”
That has been the case much of the season. The Chiefs (4-1) have not lost since their opener against Detroit but, other than a game against the woebegone Bears that was over by halftime, they have had to squeak out wins against everyone else.
Patrick Mahomes acknowledged that he has yet to play his best this season. The reigning league MVP already has thrown four interceptions while struggling to get help from one of the league’s youngest wide receiver groups. But Mahomes is coming off a better performance in last week’s 27-20 win in Minnesota and now faces what is statistically the NFL’s worst defense.
“When you play a team like the Broncos, same as any division opponent, there’s another level of intensity,” said Mahomes, who is 11-0 against Denver. “I’m not worried about a streak or anything like that. I’m worried about winning against a division opponent.”
The Broncos (1-4) are worried about winning against anyone.
Their latest letdown came last Sunday against the Jets, when any momentum they gained from their come-from-behind win over Chicago evaporated in the second half, allowing New York to rally for a 31-21 victory.
Yet the Broncos came out of the game optimistic they are on the right track. Two of their four losses are by a combined three points, proof they can hang around with just about anyone – except the Dolphins, who romped to a 70-20 win in Week 3.
“We really should and could be 4-1,” the Broncos’ Russell Wilson said, “but ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ is not good enough.”
The Broncos coulda, woulda, shoulda ended their maddening streak against the Chiefs a year ago.
They trailed 34-28 early in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t get the go-ahead touchdown in Nathaniel Hackett’s penultimate game as coach. Two weeks later, they trailed 27-24 in the fourth quarter but couldn’t score again in interim coach Jerry Rosburg’s debut.
“They’ve got a lot of talent on that team. Our guys looked at the tape and they understand that, and Sean is a heck of a football coach,” said Chiefs counterpart Andy Reid, who has presided over the entire 15-game win streak but brushed it aside this week.
“It doesn’t matter right now,” he said. “That doesn’t count for Thursday, right?”
All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce is expected to play against the Broncos after hurting his ankle late in the first half of last Sunday’s win over Minnesota. He returned after the break and finished with 10 catches for 67 yards and a touchdown. Kelce was listed as “did not participate” on Monday’s estimated injury report, but he was back on the field Tuesday.
The Chiefs had 10 players catch a pass against the Vikings, and that is becoming the norm as they break in their young wide receivers while getting contributions from tight end Noah Gray and help out of the backfield. They have had at least 10 players catch a pass in four of their five games; they had a mere eight in their win over the Jets.
“When someone like Travis has 10 catches, teams know that and put plans together to stop them,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said, “but we have great wide receivers and they all have different strengths, and our job as coaches is to put them in certain spots where they can use their strengths.”
The Broncos haven’t had problems getting off to fast starts, scoring 27 points on their five opening possessions. That trails only unbeaten San Francisco, which has scored 31. But it also means Denver has largely struggled in crunch time. They were outscored 23-8 by the Jets in the second half last week, and have been outscored 93-52 in the second half of games this season.
Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones is under pressure to perform, given he will be a free agent after failing to secure a long-term deal after a holdout that stretched into Week 1. But the All-Pro has had at least one sack each of the past four weeks, which is tied with Derrick Thomas for the most consecutive games to start a season in franchise history.
ON THE RUN
Most teams worry about Mahomes dicing up their secondary, but the Broncos are trying to fix their run defense heading into Thursday night. The Jets’ Breece Hall ran for 177 yards against them last week, further cementing their place as last in the league against the run.
And with the Chiefs’ hard-charging Isiah Pacheco up next, the job won’t be any easier.
“It’s going to be tough to win games if we can’t stop the run defensively, and we have to get it cleaned up,” Payton said. “I’d start with pitting the right gaps and then understanding, scheme-wise, what we’re getting and how to restrict those holes. A lot of it – it’s not communication, it’s technique, but that has to get better.”
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