The last 10 days could not have gone much worse for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Beginning with a humiliating loss to Oakland, a team that had lost 16 consecutive games, and ending with the sobering news that popular and talented safety Eric Berry could have lymphoma, it has been a period marked by frustration, anxiety and uncertainty.
"It's been a tough week for us. It's a lot going on," running back Jamaal Charles said, "but at the same time, we have to start getting focused. We have a big game this week."
The Chiefs (7-4) welcome the AFC West-leading Denver Broncos (8-3) to Arrowhead Stadium.
The game Sunday night between two bitter rivals has a little more riding on it this time around. After Kansas City lost a competitive game in Denver in Week 2, the beleaguered team needs a victory over Peyton Manning and Co. if it wants any shot at winning the division.
"We're playing at home, a great environment to be playing a division team — we know we got to win this game," Charles said. "This game is a go-out-there-and-get-it win. We know we have a tough challenge with a Hall of Famer and a great defense coming to town. I think we're up for that challenge this week. We control our own destiny right now."
So do the Broncos. Not only would a victory give them a stranglehold on the West, it would allow them to keep within striking distance of New England for the AFC's best record.
"They have the same goals that we have. It's really about who wants it more," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We'll have our hands full."
It's not as if the Broncos haven't had to overcome their own adversity lately.
After losing Montee Ball to a groin injury and Ronnie Hillman to a foot issue, they have leaned on second-year, third-string running back C.J. Anderson to balance the offense.
Tight end Julius Thomas remained limited in practice this week after hurting his ankle Nov. 16 against St. Louis. Linebacker Brandon Marshall could be sidelined with a concussion, leaving a rotating cast of characters to take over his job. And then there's placekicker, where they signed veteran Connor Barth this week to replace first-year pro Brandon McManus.
"This team has good flexibility," Manning said, "and I think that is important when you have a 16-game season for a player to be able to move to a different spot; to be able to run different types of plays and different types of formations and win games different types of ways. I think that is important for any team and I feel this team can do that."
Still, can they do it in a hostile environment? The Broncos are unbeaten in six games at home, but they're just 2-3 on the road, including a stunning loss to St. Louis a couple of weeks ago.
"That crowd can cause communication problems for teams," Manning said, "and so that is what you have to home in on all week, whether it's practicing with the crowd noise and really being on top of the game plan. You need to protect the ball, certainly, like in any game, but especially on the road and try to be good in the red zone, try to really fight crazy there."
There are plenty of subplots to the game, too, including a few players with personal stakes in the outcome. Here are a few more things to keep an eye on:
BIG VICK: Chiefs defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson was released by Denver in August. Even though he's been limited with a calf injury this week, he vowed to be on the field against his old team. "I'm rolling Sunday," he said. "You can't stop me out of this one."
HEAVY HEART: Charles is dedicating the game to two teenagers who drowned in a Missouri farm pond last weekend. He recalled this week meeting one of them at training camp a few of years ago.
ABOUT ARROWHEAD: Sure, it can be an intimidating place, and the Broncos were terrible there once upon a time. But they have not lost in Kansas City since 2010. "I think we've won every game we've been there since I've been here," Denver coach John Fox said.
STOPPING PEYTON: The Chiefs have yet to allow a 300-yard passer this season — not Tom Brady, Philip Rivers or Manning, who had 242 yards passing against them in September. "The key thing with him is you get him to third down and you've got to win enough to get off the field," Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, "because he's going to complete passes."
REINFORCEMENTS: The Chiefs signed Jason Avant last week to bolster one of the NFL's worst wide receiver corps. Avant played for Kansas City coach Andy Reid in Philadelphia and should be up to speed in time to play Sunday. "I know I can play," said Avant, who was released by Carolina. "If you ever see me play, I'm a very competitive person. I like to prove those people right that acquired me."
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