The NFL stretch drive begins with Week 12 |

The NFL stretch drive begins with Week 12

Alex Smith and the Chiefs come to town on Sunday, which is a must-win for the Denver Broncos as they start the stretch run.
Reed Hoffmann | AP file photo | AP

It is the best holiday ever created.

Thanksgiving, a day devoted to stuffing your face and watching football, reason enough to be thankful, the original point of the holiday.

Not only do we have a tripleheader today — Vikings at Lions, Redskins at Cowboys and Steelers at Colts — but this marks the beginning of the nitty-gritty of the season.

By and large, teams have played 10 games in 11 weeks, the prelude. Now, we see what everyone has got in the final six regular season contests.

The weather is turning. The refs let a little more go. There are no secrets anymore. Everything becomes more of a struggle.

And, yes, this brings us to the Broncos and their Mongo-sized game against Kansas City on Sunday night. Yes, it’s only the 11th game of the season for Denver, but this is a must-win because the Broncos are probably taking a loss when they head to Arrowhead on Christmas Day, and 0-2 against a division opponent is not good for tiebreaking purposes.

The Broncos have the Chiefs, at Jaguars, at Titans, Patriots, at Chiefs and Raiders to finish. A 4-2 (Pats and at Chiefs) run through this would be outstanding, and pretty much be a lock for the playoffs — 11-5 will make it. A record of 10-6 is a maybe because surging Miami has a pretty soft schedule down the stretch.

Yes, the Chiefs have been skating by this season with tight games — and sometimes sinking through the ice, as they did last week against Tampa Bay. A split with Alex Smith doing something Alex Smith-ian on Sunday is not hard to see. (Remember, he was the Niners’ excellent No. 1 pick before K.C. He was clearly a better pick than Aaron Rodgers.)

I rarely engage in Broncos’ bombast, but does the team really need to fly to Jacksonville? Blake Bortles will throw the ball to Denver’s amply qualified defense. Seriously, will the offense need to score a touchdown against the Jags? That’s a good prop bet, by the way.

The Titans should be a win, but Marcus Mariota and DeMarco Murray are handful. Summon Admiral Ackbar — it’s a trap (game).

Yes, the Patriots are coming to Denver — and home field has been a huge factor in this series, so advantage Broncos. The Pats, though, are just better. Rob Gronkowski will be healthy by the time New England comes to town. There’s also Bill Belichick figuring a way to make Trevor Siemian’s life miserable. Given that Lord Hoody tied Peyton Manning in knots, Siemian is easy prey.

Arrowhead is an evil place for the Broncos — even John Elway had a hard time winning there, so Week 17 against the Raiders in Denver looks big.

The AFC West should be a photo finish and this might be division title game.

The elite

The Patriots are the kings of the AFC until someone else proves otherwise.

In the NFC, it’s getting harder and harder not to appreciate the Cowboys. Ezekiel Elliott running behind a good offense line is vital ingredient for December and postseason success. That takes a lot of pressure of Dak Prescott, who has plenty of good targets. (Throw the ball to Dez for the greater success of my fantasy team.)

And there is Seattle. I know this is not a popular choice in Broncos Country after Super Bowl IIL, but facts are facts. The Seahawks, from 2011-15, are 22-18 in the fist halves of seasons and 31-9 in the second halves.

Since the ghastly 6-6 tie against the Cardinals and a loss to New Orleans, the Seahawks have won three in a row, and seem set for another big second half.

In the waiting room

The Broncos, the Raiders and the Chiefs are there with their fates intertwined. The Dolphins have won five in a row.

The New York Football Giants are hard to trust, but five straight Ws can’t be ignored. Can the Redskins make a statement today against the Cowboys? That would bolster their case.

Show me a pulse

We have a bunch of teams around the .500 mark. The Steelers have confounded me. They are far too talented to be 5-5, and tied with the Ravens “atop” the AFC North. The Texans are the Texans, good enough to win the AFC South and not much more.

Can Detroit win the NFC North? At least the Lions are playing a relevant Thanksgiving game against the Vikings. Are the Vikings and Packers dead? Hard to tell.

The basement

OK, Jacksonville is meant to stink. What intrigues me about the 2016 NFL season is that we have three of the most storied franchises in the league — the Browns (0-11), the Niners (1-9) and the Bears (2-8) being just awful. That’s 18 NFL titles among this trio.

Enjoy Week 12.

Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934, and @cfreud.

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