Now that we’re close enough to conduct reasonable projections, and Sunday night’s pivotal game against the Patriots is the books, I thought I’d take a look at what the Broncos need to obtain the best possible playoff seeding. This is a mini-project that I might take on for the remainder of the regular season, depending on how things shape up.
With a three game lead over the Chiefs with five weeks to go, the Broncos will be unable to clinch the division this week, even if the Broncos defeat the Chargers and the Chiefs lose to the Raiders. That is because the Chiefs would still be able to ultimately win the division record tiebreaker if in the final four weeks they won out and the Broncos lost out.
If the Broncos win and the Chiefs lose this week, next week the Broncos can clinch the AFC with a win (over OAK) OR a Chiefs loss (to SD). If both teams win or both teams lose this week, the Broncos would need a win AND a Chiefs loss next week to clinch.
All that said, I simply cannot bring myself to ever say that I want the Raiders to win a game. The best I can muster out is that I want the Chiefs to lose. However, if this week the Broncos win and the Raiders lose, that will also mean that the Raiders will be unable to catch the Broncos, so keep that in mind.
One more important note is that if the Broncos end up tied on the basis of both total record and division record, they will hold the next tiebreaker (common games) over both the Chiefs and Raiders. This is because the Broncos went 1-1 in their uncommon games (W vs. NE, L vs. IND), while the Chiefs and Raiders both went 2-0 in those games (for KC, wins over HOU & BUF; for OAK, wins over TEN & NYJ).
For reference, the remaining schedules for the Broncos, Chiefs, and Raiders are in the table below. Much has been made of the Chiefs’ easy remaining schedule, and it’s hard to deny it. Hopefully the Ravens can given them a surprise left when they’re in Baltimore.
Being three games ahead of the closest division rival is nice enough, but the Broncos are also ahead of the rest of the AFC except for the Patriots and Bengals by at least three games as well. In addition to the Chiefs, the Broncos are three games ahead of the Jets, Steelers, Colts, and Texans.
However, unlike with the AFC West, the Broncos have an overwhelming disadvantage with tiebreakers with the rest of the conference. This is because, as nice as it was to sweep the NFC North, it also guarantees that they will lose the conference tiebreaker should it come into the play, with all four teams listed above losing at least one NFC game (NYJ: PHI; PIT: SEA; HOU & IND: CAR). The Broncos also lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Colts and could potentially lose it to the Steelers as well.
For all these reasons, like with the AFC West the Broncos will be unable to clinch a playoff berth this week, either. Next week will also be a long shot, as the Broncos will need to win and at least one of the Jets or Texans would need to lose this week to even put it on the table. (The Colts and Steelers play each other this Sunday night, so it’s guaranteed one of them will win and one of them will lose–and ties are way too complicated to worry about until they happen.)
#1 Seed and First Round Bye
Suffice to say, the Broncos’ big win over the Patriots was huge for the cause of the #1 seed, and arguably necessary, as well. As you know, the Broncos are now only one game behind the Patriots, and are tied with the Bengals, who (thanks again to losing an NFC game against the Cardinals) will hold the tiebreaker over the Broncos in conference record.
The good and obvious news is that the Broncos control their own destiny with the Bengals given that they will play them in Week 16. Beat the Bengals and the Broncos should be in good shape for a first round bye. The best path to the #1 seed is also simple enough to remember: win out and one Patriots loss.
For additional perspective on this front, here’s how the Broncos’ schedule stacks up to the Patriots and Bengals. Once again, the Bengals/Broncos game is huge, but the Steelers could also reasonably give the Bengals fits in Week 14. As for the Patriots, it’s clear that road trips to Houston and New York are the best chances to inflict at least one loss that the Broncos need to overtake them to the #1 seed.