In a holiday week packed with meaningful games, the AFC West showdown between the Broncos and Chiefs will have as much impact as any.
A Kansas City victory would lift the Chiefs (7-4) into a tie atop the division give San Diego an opening to join them. It would endanger home-field advantage in the conference for Denver (8-3), which it has owned the past two years, making the Super Bowl last season.
It also would atone, in part, for the Chiefs’ flop at Oakland on Nov. 20, handing the Raiders their first victory this season.
And it would be a moving tribute to safety Eric Berry, one of the franchise’s most popular players who was found to have a mass in his chest that doctors believe could be lymphoma.
“I would go back to what Eric said to the team,” coach Andy Reid says. “He said, “Listen it’s about the Broncos now and let’s move on.’ And I think the guys have taken that to heart and that’s where they’re at. They’re focused in and ready to go.”
They’ll need to be against Peyton Manning and Denver’s high-powered offense. The Broncos have won five straight in the series, showing balance with the pass and the run.
“You’re never going to be able to load up to stop the run against a guy like Manning,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton says. “You’re just going to have to play really good defense and be able to play run and pass, because if you go too far the other way, it’s not going to be pretty.”
The holiday weekend began with the Thanksgiving tripleheader.
Philadelphia grabbed sole possession of first place in the NFC East with a 33-10 rout of Dallas. The Eagles (9-3) scored two quick touchdowns to seize control at Dallas (8-4). LeSean McCoy ran for 159 yards and a touchdown.
Seattle’s defense was dominant for the second straight week, shutting down San Francisco (7-5) in a 16-3 victory. The Seahawks (8-4) held the archrival 49ers to 164 yards and got four field goals from Steven Hauschka.
Detroit (8-4) kept its NFC North hopes strong by beating Chicago 34-17. Calvin Johnson caught 11 passes for 146 yards with a pair of first-half touchdowns. Joique Bell ran for two touchdowns against the visiting Bears (5-7).
Monday night has Miami at the New York Jets.
New England (9-2) at Green Bay (8-3)
The latest version of the Game of the Year, although this one might deserve some of the hype.
The Patriots have won seven straight to take the top spot in the AFC, doing it with a variety of offensive approaches. One week, Tom Brady tears apart defenses. The next, New England runs roughshod over an opponent.
It’s likely they will need a lot of points at Lambeau Field, where the Packers have scored at least 31 points in all five contests and got 108 combined in their past two home games.
“This is not the team you want to get behind,” Brady says. “You get behind 14-0, and then it’s 21-0, then it’s 28-0, and before you know it, they’ve just got the game so well under control that you have no chance. You’ve got to be able to stay close to them.”
As good as Brady has been the past two months, Aaron Rodgers has been even better. His stats this season: 228 of 342 (66.7 percent) for 2,957 yards, 30 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 119.2 rating.
“I always love watching him play because he does things that a lot of guys in the league can’t do, well that nobody can really do except him,” Brady says. “For a quarterback, I really know how hard it is to do that, especially on a consistent basis, and he’s been as consistent as anybody who has ever played the position.”
Miami (6-5) at New York Jets (2-9)
The previous time these teams met, the Jets finished off an 8-8 record last December with a win at Miami to knock the Dolphins from playoff contention. Rex Ryan’s bunch has been a flop since then. Their awful performance last Monday night in a 38-3 loss to Buffalo in Detroit — the Bills didn’t seem bothered by the change of venue because of massive snowstorms in Western New York — bodes very poorly for Ryan.
Miami is inconsistent, but plays everyone tough. For any chance to remain a wild-card contender, the Dolphins have to win this prime-time affair.
Arizona (9-2) at Atlanta (4-7)
New Orleans (4-7) at Pittsburgh (7-4)
Carolina (3-7-1) at Minnesota (4-7)
The horrid NFC South in a nutshell, with a dose of the AFC North, where every member is three games over .500 or better.
Atlanta and New Orleans are tied atop their division, the first time teams three games below break-even are in front of a sector. The Falcons can’t close out tight games, and the Cardinals have the conference’s best record.
Yes, Arizona had its six-game win string snapped at Seattle, but its defense remains formidable and is tied for the league lead with 15 picks.
The Saints dropped three straight at home, hard to fathom for a team that hadn’t lost in the Superdome under coach Sean Payton since 2010. Now they hit the road, where they play close games — and generally have lost.
Pittsburgh, a half-game back in its division, won all the games on its three-week homestand earlier this season, outscoring opponents 124-80.
Somehow, Carolina not only is in the chase, but with the “easiest” assignment this week, could grab first place in the NFC South. However, the Panthers are 1-7-1 since a 2-0 start.
One interesting matchup: Panthers QB Cam Newton against Vikings CB Captain Munnerlyn, who was a seventh-round draft pick in 2009 by Carolina and is the franchise leader with five career interception returns for touchdowns.
Cincinnati (7-3-1) at Tampa Bay (2-9)
Cleveland (7-4) at Buffalo (6-5)
San Diego (7-4) at Baltimore (7-4)
The rest of the AFC North in a nutshell.
Cincinnati has been streaky, and right now is on the right kind of ride: four wins in five games. The ground game has been strong: Jeremy Hill leads NFL rookies with 643 yards rushing, is second with six touchdowns on the ground, and has made up for Gio Bernard’s injury absence. Bernard is back now.
Tampa Bay has won six straight against Cincinnati. It has the NFC’s worst record, could earn the top overall draft pick, yet also could win the NFC South with a closing burst. Bucs receiver Mike Evans is tops among league rookies with 841 yards receiving and tied for the rookie lead with eight TDs. He has a TD reception in four consecutive games.
Buffalo will be thrilled to play a true home game after having to shift to Detroit last week. The Bills have been even more futile in chasing a postseason berth — 14 seasons in a row, a league high — and can make the Browns’ pursuit less likely with a win.
Cleveland was last in the playoffs in 2002, the only time since the franchise returned to the NFL following the original Browns’ move to Baltimore.
Speaking of which, that team twice has won Super Bowls as the Ravens, and it seemingly has the most comfortable schedule the rest of the way in the tightest division imaginable.
The Ravens are dynamic on the ground and stopping the run. Unheralded Justin Forsett is seeking his third straight week with at least 100 yards rushing and two TDs. He ran for a career-high 182 yards against the Saints and needs 97 yards to reach 1,000 for the first time.
San Diego QB Philip Rivers is ailing, but after a three-game slide, he has helped the Chargers to consecutive wins. Rivers has thrown for 1,183 yards with seven TDs and two interceptions in his past four meetings with Baltimore.
Tennessee (2-9) at Houston (5-6)
With the Ryan Mallett experiment over after two starts because of a chest injury, Ryan Fitzgerald gets the quarterbacking job again. Houston hopes to have outstanding running back Arian Foster back from a groin problem to pair with rookie Alfred Blue, who has run for 280 yards in three starts.
The Titans have lost five straight and are infusing youth into the lineup as much as possible, with rookie Zach Mettenberger at quarterback.
Oakland (1-10) at St. Louis (4-7)
Fresh off breaking a 16-game slide over two seasons with their upset of Kansas City, the Raiders visit St. Louis for the first time since 2002. Another win will endanger Oakland owning the top overall draft pick.
The Rams have done well against some of the NFL’s toughest opponents, with victories over Denver, Seattle and San Francisco — all title game teams in 2013. But they haven’t won consecutive games all season.
Washington (3-8) at Indianapolis (7-4)
Too bad Jay Gruden opted to bench Robert Griffin III for this one, although the Redskins coach had plenty of reasons. The first chance to see the top two picks of the 2012 draft go at it now becomes Indy QB Andrew Luck against journeyman Colt McCoy.
Despite their struggles, the Redskins are 2-1 against the AFC South. Of course, the Colts are, by far, the best team in that division. Luck needs 359 yards for his second 4,000-yard passing season and has 13 straight games with 20 completions, one short of Manning’s franchise record.
New York Giants (3-8) at Jacksonville (1-10)
Tom Coughlin took charge of the Jaguars in 1994, a year before they even took the field, and eventually led them to two AFC championship games. He’s done even better with New York — albeit not since 2011, when the Giants won their second Super Bowl under Coughlin.
New York has not made the playoffs since and has lost six in a row this season. Jacksonville has dropped four in a row, all by double digits.