Super Bowl teams are often dealt several doses of adversity before players can hoist the Lombardi trophy in February.
The Ravens were no exception last season.
They had injuries to key players, fired their offensive coordinator midseason and limped into the playoffs as an afterthought to AFC powerhouses New England and Denver.
After beating the Colts in Baltimore, they went on the road and sent Peyton Manning and Tom Brady home before edging the 49ers in the Super Bowl.
Manning and the Broncos have made it look easy this season.
But they’ve gotten little help from the football gods.
Training camp began with two front office officials being arrested on driving under the influence. Soon after, all-pro linebacker Von Miller was suspended six games for violating the league’s substance policy.
Just weeks into the season, Ryan Clady suffered a season-ending ankle injury that forced the offensive linemen to switch positions accordingly.
Clady has been joined regularly on the sideline by future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, who hasn’t been healthy enough to make it through two games.
And last week, John Fox went through heart surgery, a procedure that could keep the coach away for up to eight weeks.
If all that wasn’t enough to deal with, the Broncos now welcome the 9-0 Chiefs to Denver in what has quickly evolved into the most anticipated game of the NFL season.
Andy Reid deserves all the credit in the world.
He’s in charge of the one team in major sports history (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) to start 9-0 after posting the worst record in the league the previous season.
The Kansas City defense provides the toughest task Manning and the Broncos have seen all year.
I count six Pro Bowlers on the Chiefs’ defense: Derrick Johnson, Brandon Flowers, Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Dontari Poe and Tamba Hali.
Poe and Johnson stuff the middle of the field, particularly on run plays. Houston and Hali form the best pass rushing duo in the NFL, emulating what Miller and Elvis Dumervil did last year for the Broncos.
When Houston and Hali do their job, they set up interception opportunities for Flowers and Berry, who is one of the premiere ball hawks in the league.
Let’s not crown these guys yet, though.
The last five quarterbacks the Chiefs have seen are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Terrelle Pryor, Case Keenum, Jason Campbell and Jeff Tuel.
In other words, Kansas City hasn’t faced a solid quarterback in seven weeks.
No offense to the quintet mentioned above, but PFM isn’t exactly a fill-in quarterback.
The Kansas City offense is anything but frightening.
Running back Jamaal Charles could run for more than 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns. He might even flirt with 800 receiving yards.
But after Charles, the Chiefs don’t really have a consistent offensive threat.
Dwayne Bowe used to be a matchup nightmare for cornerbacks. This season, however, Bowe averages fewer than four catches per game.
The Alex Smith-led Chiefs have been labeled the least attractive 9-0 team in NFL history by outsiders. They depend on stellar defensive and special teams play. Keep in mind that their plus-15 turnover margin ranks the best in the league.
Three keys to the game for Denver:
- Protect Peyton. Going forward, this should be the number one priority for the Broncos. A hobbled Manning facing the leading sack team is a recipe for disaster if the offensive line can’t get it done.
- Limit Charles. Don’t be surprised if Charles gets more than 30 touches Sunday night. He’s as effective catching passes as he is taking handoffs from Smith. If the Broncos can keep Charles from going over 100 total yards, they’ll be in good shape.
- Convert third down. The one negative for the Broncos’ offense is that they’ve converted a mere 33 percent of third downs over the last three games. The Chiefs’ defense posts a 26 percent opposition success rate in this category.
My prediction: Broncos-31, Chiefs-20