For the sixth straight time, the Denver Broncos proved to have the Kansas City Chiefs' number. And this time around, the number was 22, the jersey number of second-year Broncos running back C.J. Anderson, an undrafted player out of Cal who has helped the team change its spots in some necessary ways over the last two games. The number was five, the number of field goals hit by new kicker Connor Barth, matching a franchise record. The number was 151, Kansas City's total offensive yardage through the game as a Denver defense that had seen its ups and downs rose up to dominate.
The Broncos' 29-16 Sunday night win wasn't pretty, but that was the whole point. This game proved that Peyton Manning's team didn't need Peyton Manning at his best to eke out a crucial road win over a division opponent. And with New England's loss to the Packers, the 9-3 Broncos still have a chance at the conference's top seed.
The Chiefs, in the same week that safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with a mass suspected to be lymphoma in his chest, were lost and looking for answers in this less grave and important fight.
Three thoughts from Denver's important win:
1. Denver's new offensive DNA is a winner
Some may have wondered what exactly was going on when the Denver Broncos shifted the focus of their offense against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. Denver's first drive of the game consisted of four straight Peyton Manning handoffs to Anderson, and eight runs to three passes overall. As the game went on, Anderson kept toting the rock, and the Broncos mixed in more power zone blocking up front, frequently bringing in an extra offensive lineman to reinforce their desire to bully the opposing defense. Anderson, the team's third-string back who was in the spotlight because injuries had decimated Denver's rotation at the position, finished the day with 167 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, against a very stout defense. Denver ran the ball 35 times to Manning's 35 passing attempts. It was a balanced approach in every way, it was new for the Manning Broncos, and Denver rode it to a 39-36 win.
It was more of the same against the Chiefs, as Anderson ran for 168 yards on 32 carries on Sunday night, and the Broncos ran the ball 45 times to Manning's 34 passing attempts. Denver didn't win this one with offensive explosion. This was a thoroughly old-school approach, as the Broncos kept the ball nearly 39 minutes and amassed 21 first downs to Kansas City's 11.
It's a sensible way to go, because outside of left tackle Ryan Clady, Denver's current offensive linemen are more maulers than technicians, which works far better in a power running scheme than a pass-heavy one.
"I've got to give it to the big fellas up front." Anderson said after the game. "They take so much from the media, and they took it last week and made a statement . They made another statement this week, and I'm just picking the right spots and following them. I can't get any of those moved without getting to the line and getting to the second level."
Anderson won the team's Player of the Week award after the Miami game, giving him a prime parking space at the team's facility. He's certainly a front-runner for this week's, as well.
"That's the plan -- it's just competition between all of us on offense," Anderson concluded. "Whoever they give it to, at the end of the day, it's about the 'W,' and I'm glad we got it."
2. Peyton Manning isn't the player we're used to right now
The story covered up in the rushing success is the clear fact that in the last month, Manning hasn't quite been the quarterback we're used to of late. He completed just half of his passes against Kansas City's defense, and finished with 179 passing yards. On two separate occasions, receiver Emmanuel Sanders had to make impressive defensive plays to prevent Chiefs defenders from intercepting Manning's passes, which accentuated the high value of Sanders as a free-agent pickup.
Manning threw for four touchdowns after that slow start against the Dolphins, but there was a lot of slow going after Manning hit Demaryius Thomas and Anderson for touchdown passes in the first quarter. Manning found himself under quite a bit of pressure throughout the contest, and that showed up in a reduced efficiency. And that's good coaching on the part of John Fox and his staff, moving in a positive direction when your franchise player is going through difficulties.
Manning said all the right things after the game, and one wonders if he's talked with Broncos EVP John Elway about Elway's own Super Bowl wins, which came late in his career at a time when a running back (the great Terrell Davis) defined Denver's offense after years of Elway pretty much doing it all by himself.
“I think you need to be able to win different types of football games," Manning said. "I can’t speak for Kansas City, as far as what they were prepared for and what they were looking to stop tonight, but we wanted to come out and establish the run; we thought it was important and it went really well the entire night.”
3. In this offense, Alex Smith's limitations are limitless
Denver's defense was the real winner in this game; Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith was sacked six times and finished the game with just 153 passing yards. Smith is in an offense where his tight ends and running backs have the ability to get things done. Jamaal Charles is the real face of the offense and Anthony Fasano made a really nice touchdown grab in the second quarter. But this is a team whose receivers still don't have a touchdown reception 12 games into the season, and the receiver corps as it stands now can't consistently beat coverage and gain separation to turn that around.
Because of that, the Chiefs need a quarterback who can make exceptional plays with the downfield throw, and Smith isn't that guy and he never has been. He's a limited player with a decent arm and a lot of intelligence who needs things to be a certain way around him, and he's not going to transcend an average group of weapons.
"There's really not a phase I can point to that was a positive in this game," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said when all was said and done. "We all have to do better. We're all in it together."
Yes, the Chiefs are all in it together, and they're barely in the postseason race as the AFC's sixth seed with a 7-5 record. Things look a bit precarious at this point.