The Denver Broncos have been plagued by their lack of a consistent running game on the road. The emergence of C.J. Anderson has shown them a glimpse of the possibilities with better balance, however.
They hope a more well-rounded attack can help them Sunday night when they visit the Kansas City Chiefs, who are looking to create a first-place tie in the AFC West.
Denver (8-3) ranks 29th with 72.6 rushing yards per game on the road, where it is 2-3 – one loss shy of its total from the last two seasons.
While the Broncos have been better at home with 122.8 yards per game, they also committed to the run in Sunday’s 39-36 win against Miami, recording season highs of 201 yards and 35 carries. Anderson accounted for 167 of those yards and has been much more effective than Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball, who are both dealing with injuries. Anderson is averaging a team-best 5.6 yards per carry and 157.7 scrimmage yards over his last three games.
The Broncos struck a perfect balance with 35 runs and passes against Miami. They’re averaging a 34.3 margin between passing and rushing attempts in their losses compared to a 7.1 margin in their wins. Denver is 1-3 when attempting 49 pases or more, so balance appears to be crucial – even for a team quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.
Manning owns a 130.4 passer rating at home with 21 TDs and two interceptions compared to a 91.5 rating with 13 TDs and seven INTs on the road.
"Obviously, we would rather be running it than passing it, but we have a guy that can pass it pretty good," center Will Montgomery said. "So, to be effective in the long run we need to do both, and we can do both."
Denver’s five-game winning streak against Kansas City since acquiring Manning is its longest since winning eight straight from Oct. 24, 1976-Oct. 28, 1979. Manning was 21 of 26 for 242 yards and three TDs in a 24-17 home win Sept. 14 and owns a 117.3 rating against the Chiefs since joining the Broncos, throwing 14 TDs with two interceptions.
He could be without an important weapon again with tight end Julius Thomas questionable after he sat out versus Miami with an ankle injury. Thomas leads the NFL with 12 receiving TDs.
The Chiefs (7-4) can pull even with the Broncos with a victory, though Denver would still hold the tiebreaker by virtue of a better divisional record. They’ll likely be playing with heavy hearts after Eric Berry was placed on the non-football injury list Monday after a mass suspected to be lymphoma was found in his chest.
"I understand that right now I have to concentrate on a new opponent," the All-Pro safety said. "I have great confidence in the doctors and the plan they are going to put in place for me to win this fight. I believe that I am in God’s hands and I have great peace in that."
Kansas City boasts the league’s best passing defense, limiting opponents to 198.9 yards per game. The Chiefs haven’t allowed a 300-yard passer in 13 straight regular-season contests. Manning has thrown for 300-plus in six of his last nine.
Kansas City’s 31 sacks are tied for fourth in the NFL – including a league-leading 13 from Justin Houston – but the Broncos only surrendered one sack in September.
The Chiefs have looked increasingly vulnerable on the ground, giving up 383 yards over their past two games. They allowed 179 yards and their first two rushing TDs of the season in a 24-20 defeat at previously winless Oakland on Nov. 20, including a 90-yard scoring run by Latavius Murray.
"We weren’t playing our gaps and it’s like a high school football game," linebacker Tamba Hali said.
Denver signed kicker Connor Barth on Tuesday after waiving Brandon McManus, who missed a 33-yard field goal against the Dolphins to fall to 9 for 13 on the season. Barth, who won a competition with Jay Feely at the team’s complex this week, hasn’t played since 2012 after tearing his right Achilles tendon during a charity basketball game, though he is an 84.2 percent kicker for his career.
"We’re a performance-based business and regardless of what your job description is you’re expected to perform," said coach John Fox, who is 8-1 lifetime against Kansas City.
Denver’s DeMarcus Ware is one sack shy of passing Chiefs Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas for the 14th-most in league history.
Broncos leading tackler Brandon Marshall expects to play after clearing concussion protocol and practicing in full Friday. He was knocked out of the Miami game.