Did you enjoy the progress made toward the playoffs last week? I hope you did, because the Broncos are now back to where they were two weeks ago. You’ll see some familiar goals to what you saw in previous weeks. But for this week, I’m going to add a good dose of pessimistic scenarios to the mix. It must be admitted that there is a chance, even if the odds are slim, that the Broncos could see the AFC West slip out of their fingers–or even be eliminated from the playoffs altogether.
So let’s get the ugliest out of the way first: if the Chiefs, Steelers, and Jets all win out, the Bengals win two of three, and the Broncos lose two out of three, guess what? Denver’s sitting home in January with a 11-5 record, the second time it would happen to them in franchise history (1985), and the third time in NFL history (2008 Patriots). Remember, thanks to the Broncos’ sweep of the NFC, they will lose all conference record tiebreakers with the teams that could knock them out of playoff contention. The one exception to this is if the Broncos gain the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Steelers next week.
Speaking of which, let’s zoom up to some optimism in this section, and the most important part to remember about for next week: Denver clinches a playoff berth by defeating Pittsburgh. If that happens, the Broncos will have 11 wins, and the Steelers will be unable to get more than 10, leaving only five teams left that could best Denver.
But if it doesn’t, we should take close observation of the schedules for the teams mentioned above. After the Broncos, the Steelers have two division games against lowly Baltimore and Cleveland, though both are on the road. A pretty easy road for them to get to 11 wins if they can get past Denver. The Jets, meanwhile, will be at Dallas, home against New England, and at Buffalo. Certainly the Patriots will not be easy even in the Meadowlands. Furthermore, the Patriots will be unable to clinch the #1 seed before that game, so they’ll want to win that game. Rex Ryan, meanwhile, will be chomping at the bit to knock his former employer out of the playoffs even if the Bills are out of the picture.
As for the Chiefs, let’s turn to the division race:
Nothing has changed from last week: a win AND a Kansas City loss gives Denver their 5th straight AFC West title. The problem is that a Kansas City loss continues to look slim. Traveling to Baltimore would normally be foreboding, but if any of you saw how Seattle did yesterday when they traveled to Baltimore, you’ll see that the Ravens aren’t even a shell of their normal selves. And then it’s home against Cleveland and Oakland. If the Chiefs win out, the Broncos must win two of three to win the division. So if the Broncos lose to the Steelers, they may be grateful that they could be facing a Dalton-less Bengals and a bruised and battered Chargers to end the season, both at home.
Despite addressing the gloomiest of prospects about, the Broncos are still very much alive for the #1 seed or at least a first round bye. For the former, the script is once again: win out and one Patriots loss. The problem is that the Patriots’ only challenging game left may be at the New York Jets–and as described above, there is a slim chance Broncos may need a Jets loss to even get into the playoffs. Which team the Broncos will want to root for in that game will depend on how they do the next weekend. It may be a good idea to watch the Jets/Cowboys game on Saturday and root for the Cowboys to put the Jets in a bad position.
Even if the Patriots win out, the Broncos still control their own destiny for the #2 seed: beat the Bengals and one of either the Steelers or Chargers and the Broncos clinch a first round bye. The Broncos must win an additional game even if the Bengals lose more games than to the Broncos, or they risk the Chiefs taking the division away from them. But the silver lining is that a Broncos loss to the Steelers next week doesn’t hurt them terribly for the #2 seed, and not even for the #1 seed if the Patriots somehow lay an egg against Tennessee next week.