Life under Sean Payton has been painful for the Denver Broncos, and the 1-4 AFC West team faces arguably their toughest test when visiting division rivals the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday Night Football.
Payton was seen as the missing piece of the puzzle for a franchise that aimed to catch up to the Chiefs when he was hired in February.
Instead, it's been more of the same from the Broncos, who sit bottom of the AFC West at 1-4 and are likely candidates to trade away some of their best players before the October 31st trade deadline.
Now they go to Arrowhead to face a Chiefs side that's won the last 15 meetings with its division rivals in the third-longest win streak over one opponent in NFL history.
Kansas City are 10.5-point favorites for this latest encounter and is -600 ML to extend its four-game winning run. But with doubts over Travis Kelce's ankle, could there be just a glimmer of hope for Denver?
|What||Denver Broncos vs. Kansas City Chiefs|
|When||8.15pm EST, Thursday October 12th, 2023|
|How to watch||Amazon Prime|
|Grand Final Odds||Chiefs -10.5, Broncos +450 ML|
Star tight end Kelce is listed as questionable for the first game of the Week 6 slate with the ankle injury he suffered in the Chiefs win over the Minnesota Vikings.
Kelce left that game temporarily, only to return after treatment and score a touchdown in a 27-20 victory that saw Kansas City improve to 4-1.
Patrick Mahomes' favorite target was limited in practice on Tuesday and head coach Andy Reid did not reveal much about Kelce's health when asked at his press conference.
Should Kelce miss the game or be limited, that would hinder a Chiefs passing attack that's yet to hit its usual heights, albeit they still rank seventh for average passing yards per game.
The Chiefs have tried to deploy a balanced offense this year but may lean even more on Isiah Pacheco and the ground game if they're without Kelce.
Fortunately for Kansas City, they may not need Kelce to put up points against Denver's league-worst defense, which has given up the most yards (450.6) and points (36.2) per game on average by a considerable margin.
The Broncos had the unwanted distinction of making New York Jets quarterback Zach Wilson look good in Week 5 when Gang Green scored 31 points and put up over 400 yards in an upset win at Mile High Stadium.
From a defense that allowed just over 21 points per game last season and ranked tenth against the run, there has been a worryingly large amount of regression since Payton and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph took over.
Denver allowed 70 points against the Miami Dolphins last month and it's +105 the Chiefs put up over 30.5 points on Thursday.
Denver's defensive issues have meant the offense has had to step up and in that regard, there has been an improvement under Payton.
The Broncos were dead last in points per game last season but are up to tenth in 2023, while they rank 11th in points per drive.
They could get back tight end Greg Dulcich from a hamstring injury for this game, further adding to a decent collection of weapons at Russell Wilson's disposal.
But Wilson faces a hard time building on some decent performances against an impressive Chiefs defense that ranks top-10 for both yards and points allowed per game.
Defensive end George Karlaftis is questionable for this game, which would hurt the amount of pressure the Chiefs could bring to a quarterback in Wilson who tends to struggle when defenders get in his face.
But the home team can still call upon one-man wrecking crew Chris Jones, the leader of a well-coached defense that should slow down a Denver offence on a night when wet and windy conditions could make it tricky to move the ball through the air.
The weather and Kelce's health are the only obvious stumbling blocks the Chiefs will need to overcome against a Denver team whose defense has looked overmatched all season.
We saw Mahomes and Co. beat up on a bad defense when scoring 41 points against the Chicago Bears earlier in the year and unless Payton can wave a magic wand to transform his defense, it could be a long night for Denver.
The Broncos don't look like ending this long losing streak against the Chiefs anytime soon in a rivalry that's become increasingly one-sided with Denver covering the spread just five times in those 15 defeats to Kansas City.
They are -110 to cover as a double-digit underdog on Thursday and that would at least be something in a season where Denver will need to take the wins wherever they can.