In terms of marquee matchups between two teams with gaudy win-loss records, this weekend’s Chiefs-Broncos tilt is one of the biggest games in NFL regular-season history. In terms of meaningful1 games, Chase Stuart pegs Denver–Kansas City as the seventh-loftiest regular-season matchup since the merger in 1970. They’re teams that are almost perfectly matched: The Broncos have a historically great offense, led by a future Hall of Famer at quarterback, to go with an average defense; the Chiefs have the dominant defense with an elite running back leading a so-so offense.
Strangely, this isn’t getting the amount of hype your typical best-game-in-years contest would normally get. One of the six games ahead of this one on Stuart’s list is the Patriots-Colts game from 2007, which got so much attention during the week that it stopped traffic in most states for four hours when the game actually happened. You don’t feel that around this Broncos-Chiefs game, and I think I know why: People don’t really believe in the Chiefs. Vegas backs that up, as Kansas City is an eight-point underdog heading into this game, which is unheard of for a team with the Chiefs’ 9-0 record.
I don’t know that the Chiefs are going to win this matchup, but I do think there are factors that might point to the Chiefs being a better team than people perhaps realize. Hear me out and I think I can probably get you to agree.
The high ankle sprain has become the most notorious injury in football over the past few years. While just about any player can and will gut his way through what we traditionally think of as a sprained ankle with some tape, the high ankle sprain is an injury that puts players on the shelf for weeks at a time.
Gutting through it doesn’t work. Rob Gronkowski tried to suit up for the Super Bowl two weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship Game and looked like a shell of his former Gronk self. Roddy White attempted to play through one during the first few weeks with the Falcons this season and averaged 25 yards per game before the team finally took the hint and gave him three weeks off. Hell, even Adrian Peterson — the superathlete who came back from a traumatic knee injury quicker than anybody has ever seen — suffered a Grade 1 high ankle sprain (the mildest type) and swore that he wouldn’t miss a game before subsequently missing the next three games.
Peyton Manning is currently playing through a high ankle sprain without missing any time.
That seems weird, right? That an injury capable of felling super-athletes like Peterson or Gronkowski has mostly just hobbled Manning? You might suggest it’s because he’s a quarterback who doesn’t rely upon cutting or bursting, and there’s probably something to that, but other quarterbacks have missed time with high ankle sprains. Jay Cutler is currently out with one that he suffered in the fourth quarter against the Lions last week. The most infamous recent high ankle sprain for a passer belongs to Ben Roethlisberger, who was injured against the Browns in Week 14 of the 2011 season. Roethlisberger then limped through a terrible three-interception performance against the 49ers before taking a week off; he returned with exceedingly limited mobility and major accuracy issues, including a middling performance against the Broncos in Pittsburgh’s wild-card loss to Tim Tebow.
I’m neither a doctor nor a mechanics expert, but I think I can pinpoint the reason why Manning is playing and Roethlisberger had to sit. Roethlisberger’s injury was to his left ankle, which is his front leg as a passer. You push on your front leg to drive the ball and get that desirable combination of velocity and accuracy; when you don’t get your front leg involved, you throw an inaccurate ball that often sails. If you remember Robert Griffin’s performance during the playoffs last year, you’ll remember how a lower-leg injury (in that case, to Griffin’s knee) can blow up a quarterback’s mechanics. Take a look at this GIF of Roethlisberger throwing an interception in the wild-card loss to the Broncos:
See how his front foot is barely involved in the throw? It’s virtually all off his back foot, and that’s a recipe for disaster in the NFL. This throw has zip, but it’s way too far ahead of Roethlisberger’s intended receiver, and it’s an easy interception. That’s probably the worst outcome I could choose, but Roethlisberger’s numbers were down significantly after his injury. Before the ankle swelled, Roethlisberger had completed 64 percent of his passes while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. Afterward, he completed just 56 percent of his passes and averaged 6.8 yards per attempt.
Manning’s injury, crucially, is to his right ankle. That’s his rear leg. My guess is Manning would be struggling more with the injury if it were to his front leg, as was the case with Roethlisberger (and as is the case with Cutler). That could very well be the difference between Manning playing in this game and Denver’s star quarterback sitting out, especially after the ankle was reinjured during last week’s victory over the Chargers.2
Since Manning suffered the ankle injury against the Colts in Week 7, his numbers have slightly dipped. As Joan Niesen of the Denver Post noted, Manning’s completion percentage has dropped from 74.1 percent to 65.1 percent. Of course, some of that is likely just regression toward the mean; any quarterback who completes 74.1 percent of his passes over a six-game stretch probably won’t do it again.
Niesen critically notes, though, that Manning’s completion percentage has come down during a time when he started throwing shorter passes. He has thrown 63 percent of his passes within nine yards of the line of scrimmage since the injury, up from 55 percent before the Colts game. And his accuracy on longer throws is down, too: Manning was completing nearly 50 percent of his passes thrown 20 yards or more downfield before the Colts game, but that figure has dropped to 20 percent since the injury.
Where I think Manning’s ankle injury will really come into play is in his footwork around and out of the pocket. He has never been a scrambler by any means, but his efficiency inside the pocket is downright gorgeous; Manning always knows which step to take and finds the perfect angle to avoid the rush while creating a throwing lane for the receiver he plans to throw to. With a high ankle sprain, it’s going to be harder for Manning to move around in the pocket and get those throws out.
The Broncos can help him by giving him quicker throws, as they have over the past several weeks, but the Chiefs will likely follow the Colts’ strategy of using their cornerbacks to press the Denver wideouts at the line of scrimmage. Kansas City might have the best trio of cornerbacks in the league with Brandon Flowers, Sean Smith, and emerging rookie Marcus Cooper, who might be having the best season of the three at the moment. The Chiefs will also hope for a big game from star nose tackle Dontari Poe; even if Poe doesn’t sack Manning himself, it will be critical that he creates pressure up the middle and prevents Manning from stepping up in the pocket to avoid rushers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston on the edges.
For the Chiefs, that balance of pressure and coverage will determine how successful their defensive performance is Sunday. In their last three games before the bye — narrow victories over the Texans, Browns, and Bills — the Chiefs have had to resort to heavy doses of blitzing in the fourth quarter to try to protect their lead. It has worked all three times, but that’s not quite as simple of a solution with Manning as it is with Case Keenum, Jason Campbell, and Jeff Tuel. If the Chiefs can get pressure rushing with their three down linemen and two outside linebackers, that allows them to drop six players into coverage while requiring tight end Julius Thomas and halfback Knowshon Moreno to spend more time blocking. Given that Moreno and Thomas are such key contributors on those short passes that Manning is throwing, that would be an enormous advantage for the Chiefs. If they can’t get pressure and have to send six or more defenders on blitzes to try to rattle Manning, the Chiefs are probably going to be in trouble.
Bye Bye Andy
You might have forgotten about Andy Reid’s weirdest coaching tidbit: He’s really, really phenomenal after his bye week. During his time in Philadelphia, Reid won 13 of the 14 games that followed the Eagles’ bye week, only losing during last year’s debacle of a season. If you could just find one other coach who was awesome after his bye weeks and somehow let Reid and him alternate weeks, you’d have a really scary football team.
Alas, as much as I like to imagine Reid having some post-bye secret strategy, I doubt that’s the case. There are some mitigating factors that help propel Reid’s record into the stratosphere.
For one, our baselines for what’s good is skewed a bit by the bye week. Obviously, a random team in a given NFL week will win 50 percent of the time. Per Spreadapedia, those well-rested teams coming off their bye win 52.8 percent of their matchups. That rises even higher when they’re at home; all the way to 59.4 percent, actually. Reid is on the road this week, but during his rise to this gaudy win total, he’s been at home for 11 of his 14 matchups. That makes winning much easier. Reid’s teams have also been much better than the average squad; he won 58.3 percent of his games as an Eagles coach.
None of that adds up to totally wash away Reid’s record after the bye, but there is enough in there to start wondering whether Reid has been a bit lucky. Let’s be aggressive and suggest, for a second, that Reid’s chances of winning each game after his bye week are at an even 60 percent. The odds that any coach would win 13 or more of his 14 games at a 60 percent clip are 0.8 percent, or roughly in the 123-to-1 range.
As Stuart often notes, crazy splits happen all the time without a rhyme or reason for them occurring. He calls this the Wyatt Earp Effect, the idea that so many different variables and opportunities pop up that, eventually, somebody is bound to have this happen to them. That may very well be the case with Reid. Take Bill Belichick, for example. During the first 10 years of his career, Belichick was a disappointing 4-6 coming off his bye. Since then, he has played nine more post-bye games and won eight. Of course, he moved from the Browns to the Patriots and added Tom Brady, but it’s also entirely possible that most of Reid’s success could be tied up in the talent of his old team, too. And, again thanks to Spreadapedia, arguably the most successful head coach after bye weeks since 1990 would be Dennis Green. The famously loud ex–Cardinals and Vikings coach started his career 9-1 in post-bye games before finishing it by splitting his final four games.
I doubt that Reid’s success after bye weeks means very much in terms of his likelihood of beating the Broncos here. It can’t hurt, of course, but there are more pressing factors that stand out as likely indicators that the Chiefs can be competitive with the Broncos than his post-bye record.
The biggest reason some people don’t take the 9-0 Chiefs seriously is pretty obvious: They’ve played a schedule of chumps. I can’t say I disagree, especially after their three-game run against backup quarterbacks before the bye, but the gap in schedule strength between the Chiefs and Broncos is vastly overstated. Football Outsiders notes that the Chiefs have played the easiest schedule in football, with their average opponent at a DVOA of -17.7 percent, which is roughly like playing the Giants every week.
Do you know who is in second place by that measure? The Broncos! Per Football Outsiders, Denver’s average opponent has posted a DVOA of -15.2 percent, which is just behind Kansas City. Football Outsiders has the Broncos as the better team — they top the league in DVOA while the Chiefs are currently eighth — but it’s not necessarily because of K.C.’s schedule. Its numbers peg Denver’s strength, offense, to be superior to Kansas City’s strength, defense.
Another strength of schedule metric suggests otherwise, and it provides an interesting comparison to be made. The Pro-Football-Reference.com Simple Rating System uses results to grade each team’s strength of schedule. This year, Kansas City’s average opponent has been 4.5 points worse than league-average. That might not sound like a lot, but it’s truly remarkable. Since the merger in 1970, just 12 teams have finished the schedule with its average opponent 4.0 points worse than league-average. Only one of those teams failed to post a winning record that year, and that team — the 2010 Rams — went a combined 3-27 during the two seasons sandwiching that roster.
The one team that sticks out like a sore thumb in the list is the one that will undoubtedly be watching this game: the undefeated 1972 Dolphins. There’s more in comparing those Dolphins to these Chiefs than you might imagine.
For one, that Dolphins team wasn’t as respected a group of superstars as it might seem today. Despite the fact that they ran the table during the 14-game regular season and then won their first two games in the AFC playoffs, Miami was far from a prohibitive favorite to win the Super Bowl against Washington. In fact, the Dolphins were just one-point favorites heading into that year’s big game, which they would win 14-7. And while there wasn’t exactly the sort of discussion community surrounding the NFL then that there is now, it’s hard to imagine that the easy schedule didn’t inform that betting line and the public perception surrounding the Dolphins. Here is Miami’s schedule viewed two different ways, with one column looking at the record of each vanquished team at the time Miami played them, and a second column incorporating their final record.
Miami finished with an average opponent 4.2 points below league-average, but you can see for yourself just how bad those teams are. The Chiefs will settle into that 4.2-point range after the Broncos game. Miami didn’t play anybody anywhere near as good as the 2013 Broncos until the playoffs, where they won three games by a combined total of 17 points. Basically, the toughest team they played during the regular season would look something like this year’s Lions. I also counted six games when the quarterback who started the majority of games for the Miami opposition either didn’t start, didn’t finish, or didn’t play in the game. Some of that was just mop-up duty, but the Dolphins also got to face a few backup quarterbacks, just as the Chiefs have.
The perfect Dolphins were not a perfect team, but they were still very good. They led the league in points allowed per game and points scored per game; the Chiefs might very well lead the league in scoring defense, but they won’t lead the league in points scored until Alex Smith grows an extra set of limbs. The Dolphins were built around a run-heavy offense (even for the run-heavy era of the early ’70s), likely because starting quarterback Bob Griese missed the vast majority of the season with a broken leg. He was replaced by backup Earl Morrall, who shares some similarities with Smith as a former top draft pick (second overall) who never lived up to expectations but still managed to have some notable success.
Their coaching situation was eerily similar, too. Don Shula had enjoyed wild success during his first stint as a head coach in Baltimore, but his Colts teams had notably come up short in the playoffs, most famously losing Super Bowl III to the Jets in a massive upset. After his first disappointing season — an 8-5-1 campaign in 1969, his seventh year with the Colts — the upstart Dolphins signed Shula to a deal and paid out compensation to the Colts. Shula had more success in Miami, but the Dolphins still failed to win the Super Bowl until that 1972 campaign. It’s hard to envision a two-time Super Bowl–winning coach being slapped with the same “can’t win the big one” tag affixed to Reid, but it was unquestionably the case at the time. There just weren’t hot takes and sports radio back then to reinforce the claim.
I don’t think the Chiefs are the best team in the NFL, nor do I think they should be the favorites to win the AFC West (even though I did predict they would do so in August). I do think the same faults and foibles we all see in this year’s Chiefs aren’t much different from some of the problems we would have seen in some of the great teams of the past, like those undefeated 1972 Dolphins. Great teams overcome their flaws and exceed expectations when they need to. The Chiefs probably aren’t going 16-0, but they can take a huge step toward becoming the consensus best team in football by winning on Sunday night. I think they’ll give the Broncos a tougher game than most people expect.