It’s that time of year to once again take an outlook on the Broncos’ progress toward the playoffs, an effort that will continue each week through the remainder of the regular season.
Suffice to say, the discussion must begin here, as the Broncos find themselves in a mighty fight with both the Chiefs and Raiders in the quest for Denver to win a sixth straight AFC West title.
All teams have three at home and three on the road. The Broncos and Raiders have three remaining division games, while the Chiefs have four. The Broncos clearly have the toughest non-division game remaining with the Patriots, but they do have the likeliest easiest game as well against the Jaguars, although it is on the road.
Of course, with the Broncos still having two games against the Chiefs and one against the Raiders, the majority of their fate in division record will come down to those games.
But the current thing working against the Broncos is their bad loss to the Chargers on Thursday night, something that the Chiefs and Raiders have yet to do. The better news is that all three teams have only beat the Chargers once, with both the Chiefs and Raiders still having to travel to San Diego. Furthermore, these will also be the final two home games on the Chargers’ schedule, and they very well could also be the final two games in the city of San Diego, period. The Chargers obliterated the Dolphins in their last home game of 2015 when the specter of moving was real, so it would be nice if that intangible comes to play in 2016.
The common games tiebreaker will likely be a non-factor, but if it does become one, it will likely benefit the Chiefs due to one of their losses being against the non-common Steelers.
The conference record could also be a non-factor, but if it is, it will work against the Broncos. They have played all their NFC games and went 3-1 in them, while the Chiefs and Raiders are both 2-1. (KC has yet to play ATL and OAK has yet to play CAR.) While you still want to root for the Falcons and Panthers to take division rivals down a game, just know that if they do the Broncos will lose this tiebreaker.
Strength of victory is way too early to project at this point, and will change radically from week to week, but it’s included as a real possibility that the AFC West could come down to it, due to close records in the first three tiebreakers.
If the Broncos do win the AFC West, then they also have the potential to either hold or yield the head-top-head trump card for the likely competitor for the #1 seed–as usual, the Patriots. For the division rivals, New England, like Kansas City and Oakland, is 2-1 in NFC games, with a visit by the Rams still pending. Therefore, and once again, if the Patriots have to drop another game, they’d want it to be against Los Angeles.
The Broncos do hold the trump card over the current AFC South leaders in the Texans, as well as the second place Colts. Thus, it’s unlikely that an AFC West champion Broncos would be a #4 seed. Unfortunately, their AFC North trump card, the Bengals, appear to be entering a death spiral with the losses of AJ Green and Giovani Bernard. Even worse, the Broncos are guaranteed to lose the tiebreakers against either Baltimore or Pittsburgh, the likely AFC North contenders. That’s because both have lost at least two NFC games, thus guaranteeing that their AFC record would be better than the Broncos in any tie. Thus, a first round bye could be a dicey proposition if it pits the Broncos against either the Ravens or Steelers.
This is a point I made in comments yesterday, but one I want to emphasize once again given that there are three legitimate playoff contenders coming from the AFC West. If two AFC West teams and at least one non-AFC West team are tied for a wild card, elimination occurs within the division before it occurs outside the division.
For an example, let’s say the Broncos win the AFC West, the Chiefs and Raiders are tied with the Texans for the second wild card, and the Chiefs garner a better division record than the Raiders. Even though the Raiders beat the Texans, they would be eliminated first because the Chiefs would knock them out before they get a chance to get to the Texans. The Texans would then knock out the Chiefs due to beating them.
So in looking at scenarios in which the Broncos fail to win the AFC West, know that they still have to deal with the other AFC West non-winner in wild card scenarios first.
With that important fact in hand, as described above if the Broncos get into a wild card battle outside the division, they want it to be against the Texans or Colts (who they beat) and not the Ravens or Steelers (who are guaranteed to hold the conference tiebreaker against Denver). The Titans will also come down to a head-to-head trump card. Buffalo would likely be a favorable team for the Broncos to tiebreak against, as they, like Denver, are also 3-1 against the NFC. That means it would come down to strength of victory, and although the Bills beat the Patriots, they also beat up on the dreck of the NFC West that would likely hurt them in this department. Finally, there are the Dolphins, who are the currently the closest to a wild card at 6-4. Their NFC record is 1-1, with games against the Cardinals and 49ers still pending. If the Dolphins lose one of them, it takes them further away from wild card contention, but it would also guarantee, like the Ravens and Steelers, that the Broncos would lose a tiebreaker against Miami if it came down to that.