Denver Broncos (3-8) at Kansas City Chiefs (7-4)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: CBS, Ian Eagle, Rich Gannon
PREDICTION: Chiefs 24-20
KEYS TO THE GAME: Without the benefit of a turnover or three from the Chiefs, the Broncos pose a minimal threat to division-leading Kansas City. The Broncos did roll up 49 points in the first meeting -- and 44 in their last visit to K.C. -- and the team's receivers have consistently sneaked behind coverage even with a poor running game. The Chiefs can pass, too, but prefer to whip teams at the line and let RBs Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones. WR Dwayne Bowe should lock up with Broncos CB Champ Bailey. Bowe has an NFL-high 14 TD catches, including a scored in seven straight games.
FAST FACTS: Chiefs QB Matt Cassel led the NFL with 12 touchdown passes in November. ... The Broncos have won five of the last seven, including 49-29 on Nov. 14.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Denver rookie Eric Decker isn't surprised that Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is on a tear in his fourth NFL season.
He got a sneak peak this past summer at Larry Fitzgerald's elite receiver camp held in Minneapolis.
"He's 6-2, 225, 230 pounds and he plays like he's 5-10," Decker said. "He gets out of his breaks and his run after the catch is probably his best attribute, making guys miss, shedding guys and making touchdowns."
Bowe has been doing that with impunity for seven weeks, with four 100-yard games and 13 of his career-best 14 TDs. Bowe's season-highs were set in the Nov. 14 loss to Denver (13-186) as Kansas City tried to rally from 35 down and were caught in pass-first mode.
"There's nobody hotter than Bowe," Broncos defensive coordinator Don Martindale said.
One way the Broncos likely will try to cool him down is by assigning their best cover corner, Champ Bailey, as a shadow for Bowe. Double teaming the hot receiver leaves Denver's suspect run defense without numbers, so the nine-time Pro Bowl cornerback appears to be the best overall solution.
"You put your best guys on their best guys a lot of times and you go," coach Josh McDaniels admitted when asked about that potential matchup.
"Sometimes you have to let that happen and let that play out; other times you can't do that the whole game, though. If you do that the whole game and tell them what you are doing all the time, I know the coordinator is too good and the scheme is too good. They will find a way to hurt you in another direction."
Bowe's 14 TD receptions are only two shy of his career total his first three seasons. His 15.3 yards per catch is well above his career norm. He should also shatter his personal best in yards of 1,022 in 2008. He already has 885 yards through 11 games.
"He just seems more focused, more confident," Bailey said. "He's always had talent. But he has a quarterback now that can get him the ball. They've had some issues with that in his early years. He just looks like a different person."
It was but two months ago that the natives of Chiefs Nation were calling for the head of Matt Cassel. Yes, the Chiefs started the season 3-0, but Cassel was not exactly lighting it up.
After three games he had completed 54.5 percent of his passes 77 passes for 494 yards, or 6.42 yards per attempt. Cassel had thrown four TD passes and three interceptions. The Chiefs were averaging 22.7 points per game.
But eight games later, those trying to run Cassel out of town have suddenly gone silent. The Chiefs are 7-4 and still atop the AFC West, and while the offense is not on a record setting pace for yardage, Cassel and his playmakers like Dwayne Bowe and Jamaal Charles, have been very efficient and they've been putting points on the scoreboard.
Cassel was named the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month for November. With four games that month and four in October, Cassel completed 62.2 percent of his 246 passes for 1,813 yards, or 7.37 yards per attempt. He had 18 TD passes and one interception. In those eight games, the Chiefs averaged 27 points per game.
"It's quite an honor but it's definitely more of a team honor than anything else," Cassel said. "It's been quite a season so far and I just hope we can continue to get better each and every week."
The absolute key for Cassel has been cutting down on the negative plays, specifically turnovers and sacks. He's thrown four interceptions and lost the ball once on a fumble. He's been sacked 15 times in 338 passing plays or once every 22.5 pass plays. That's a number any team can live with.
"He's a guy that did not have a ton of experience under his belt in comparison to what most quarterbacks do coming into the league," said head coach Todd Haley. "Each and every practice is a big opportunity to gather experience as is each game and I just think that with his continued work and preparation, that you're seeing him make progress there."
--S Darcel McBath returned for the first time since Nov. 22 from a quadriceps injury. McBath sat out Wednesday's practice. If he's able to play, he can be plugged in for injured Brian Dawkins. Without him, Denver will try a piecemeal lineup, with the likes of David Bruton, Kyle McCarthy and Nate Jones at safety.
--WR Brandon Lloyd was born in Kansas City and attended high school in the area. But a seventh-grade game and a preseason tilt with San Francisco in 2003 are his only experiences playing at Arrowhead Stadium.
--WR Kenny McKinley's death of a self-inflicted gunshot wound earlier this season was tied to depression about his health and gambling debts, according to multiple reports. Some teammates stated they want the player to be remembered for his gregarious nature rather than the reasons behind his passing.
--WR Eddie Royal needs just 56 scrimmage yards to become the fifth player in franchise history to post at least 1,000 combined yards in each of his first three NFL seasons. Terrell Davis (1995-97), Floyd Little (1967-69), Glyn Milburn (1993-95) and Rick Upchurch (1975-1977) are the others.
--WR Jabar Gaffney can surpass his single season career high with two catches Sunday. Gaffney had 55 catches for 492 yards with Houston in 2005. Gaffney's also only 67 yards shy of his career best, set last season (732).
-- S Eric Berry is one of a handful of Chiefs rookies from the south who are getting their first taste of cold weather football. Berry went out for one practice in the last week wearing a hoodie, another sweatshirt and several t-shirts under his uniform top. "Oh man that was cold," said Berry, who grew up in Georgia and played college ball at Tennessee. "I've never tried to play or practice in anything like that. And then the guys are all telling me it was nothing and that the cold stuff hasn't hit yet."
-- DL Shaun Smith has established himself as a factor on the defensive line. After a '09 season in which he played only three games with Cincinnati, Smith has played in all 11 games and has started five of those. Barring injury, he'll easily pass his career high totals over six previous seasons for tackles and sacks. Plus, he's now an offensive forced as a 335-pound fullback in goal line situations.
-- RB Jamaal Charles topped the 1,000-yard mark for the 2010 season in game No. 11 against Seattle, and he did that in just 158 carries. That's the fewest carries to 1,000 by a back in Chiefs history.
-- LS Thomas Gafford signed a two-year contract extension last week, making him the third player on the roster who has signed an extended contract this season. He joined LBs Andy Studebaker and Derrick Johnson. The Chiefs still have 20 to 25 players without contracts for the 2011 season as the league waits for a new labor agreement.
-- K Ryan Succop spent time last week working on tackling. With a background in soccer, Succop has not had to spend much time learning how to tackle the guy with the ball. "I'm the last line of defense," Succop said. "So they thought I should know what I'm doing. We do it every once in awhile just as a refresher course."
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