ENGLEWOOD — Ineffective, awful, lacking effort.
These are some of the printable verbal Molotov cocktails fired in the Broncos’ direction following their 1-4 start. They began the season with playoff ambitions and now look like a homecoming opponent. It’s not a comfortable place to be with Kansas City waiting with the grill on and the sides ready for a Thursday night prime time affair on Denver7.
There was a time when Broncos vs. Chiefs was the best rivalry in the AFC West. The 1990s battles were legendary, including Denver’s Shannon Sharpe sharing a phone number that caused Derrick Thomas to lose his temper in a flurry of personal fouls. And the Broncos won those games, topping Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium on their way to their first Super Bowl crown. Their most recent win in Kansas City came in 2015, the Broncos’ last Super Bowl championship season. Trailing 14-0, Peyton Manning refused to go gently into that good night, powering a comeback that was completed with Brandon Marshall’s poke of the Jamaal Charles’ football – Marshall broke his finger on the play – and Bradley Roby’s scoop and score.
No one remains on the Broncos from that team.
In the time since, the Broncos have become KC Barbecue, losing 15 straight games, the most lopsided stretch in the history of the rivalry. That explains why current Broncos outside linebacker Frank Clark, who missed Tuesday’s practice with an illness but should play this week, made a candid omission in July after joining the Broncos.
“I wouldn’t call it a rivalry. In a rivalry, it’s competitive,” Clark said during training camp. “I am on the Broncos now, and I have been on the other side. And we didn’t call it a rivalry then. Until we become competitive enough, we have to beat that team. We have to win our division. We have to do a few things.”
As it stands, the Broncos would like to win a game. Their season ranks among the league’s biggest disappointments. They are 0-3 at home, despite being favored against the Raiders, Commanders and Jets. The offense is improved – 24.2 points per game compared to 16 last season – but has yet to establish the planned physical identity in the run game. And the defense is historically bad, worse than an offense last year that conjured images of black-and-white video reels and leather helmets.
“It’s a must-win,” safety Justin Simmons said.
Through five games, the Broncos rank last in yards allowed per game (450.6), yards per play (6.96), points per game (36.2) and rushing yards (187.6). The Broncos are only the fifth team since 1980 to allow at least 750 yards on the ground in a three-game stretch.
The other four teams posted a combined 10-54 record. That doesn’t bode well for the Broncos.
Struggling Broncos aim to snap 15-game losing skid to Chiefs
Neither does the fact that Isiah Pacheco has developed into one of the Chiefs’ best offensive players. The 2022 seventh-round pick – the Broncos hosted Pacheco for a visit but elected not to draft him – has rushed 71 times for 325 yards, including 115 against the Jets two weeks ago.
The Broncos’ rush defense is a mess of missed assignments, tackles and poor recognition. On Breece Hall’s 72-yard scoring run last Sunday, the defensive tackle lost his matchup, leading the tackle to reach the linebacker with ease, and the outside linebacker had no containment and the safety could not reach Hall despite having the angle. The problem is that this is not an outlier. The lack of speed and ability to win one-on-ones remains alarming.
“Obviously that number (of 15 straight) is disturbing for guys who have been here and coaches like me who have been here. We need to put our best foot forward and win a game. That’s important,” defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “I get it. It’s a hard league. Everyone’s working to fix it. I thought last weekend was closer outside of four or five plays. But you can’t have those plays. You can’t have a player go 70 yards untouched. That’s unseen. I am not used to that. Yes I am pissed off about that. I am not broken. I am working to get it fixed.”
Even if the Broncos slow Pacheco, they must deal with reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes. His numbers are modest this season – 10 touchdowns, four interceptions – but he has made plays when it mattered most. He is 11-0 against the Broncos with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Tight end Travis Kelce is dealing with a sprained ankle, though he practiced Tuesday. Kelce loves playing against Denver. In 17 games against the Broncos, he boasts 101 catches on 150 targets for 1,290 yards and six touchdowns.
If there is a weakness, it is Kansas City’s receiving corps. It does not feature a true No. 1 or even a No. 2 with Tyreek Hill in Miami and JuJu Schuster-Smith in New England. The statistical leaders are Justin Watson and Rashee Rice. It screams that the Broncos should use All-Pro Patrick Surtain II on Kelce as much as possible.
“We are going to match up pretty often I am sure. It’s going to be a good matchup,” Surtain II said. “It’s tough because he’s like a unicorn, knows how to run routes. He’s good after the catch. He knows how to manipulate defenders in a way. He’s a tough cover for sure.”
The Broncos played the Chiefs close last season, losing 34-28 and 27-24. However, they are a double-digit underdog for the fourth time in the last seven games against Kansas City. No one is giving Denver a chance, and many in Broncos Country believe losing is not the worst thing to improve their draft order with quarterbacks Caleb Williams and Drake Maye available.
If the Broncos lose, the next few weeks until the Oct. 31 trade deadline will likely be defined by trades. Those who could be moved if Denver eats portions of contracts include Simmons, receivers Jerry Jeudy and Courtland Sutton, linebacker Josey Jewell and Clark.
Payton is focused on winning a game, not trades.
“It’s a good question. (General manager) George (Paton) and I talk every day, three or four times a day. We’re not looking to do business with any of our players. That doesn’t prevent teams from calling at times. We just — you pick the phone up, but that’s kind of where it’s at,” Payton said. “We’ve got a good handle on this current roster and our vision for the roster a year from now. That’s the part about improving and getting better. Until you just said it, I wouldn’t have known it was three weeks away. Three weeks seems like an eternity right now.”