Everyone should be aware of that the Broncos need to win out to ensure themselves a spot in the playoffs. Everyone is aware by now of the weaknesses the Broncos have (mostly on offense). And everyone is aware that the Broncos are not likely to secure the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, even if it’s mathematically possible.
But while all is not perfect for the Broncos, nor is it perfect for the remaining four opponents on their schedule. Each of those opponents will pose a problem for the Broncos to some degree, but those opponents have problems that will affect them, too.
Let’s get the Broncos’ issues out of the way first: They still have issues at right tackle, their running back corps has thinned thanks to injuries, the starting QB has battled injuries, the backup QB still needs development before he becomes the starter, and the defense, while still one of the best units in the NFL, is no longer capable of making up for the offense’s inability to move the chains or of constantly holding off opponents who get good field position.
But we’ve discussed these issues many times over. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the opponents the Broncos will face in the coming weeks and examine what each of them has done well and the areas in which they have struggled – and, in particular, anything noteworthy as it pertains to their specific matchup against the Broncos.
We’ll go over them in order of when the Broncos play them.
Tennessee Titans, Dec. 11
The Titans are 6-6 and coming off a bye week. They are in the running for the AFC South title, thanks to an offense that has been pretty efficient. DeMarco Murry has experienced a resurgence, Delanie Walker remains one of the most overlooked tight ends in the NFL and Marcus Mariota has been much better at taking care of the ball, with 25 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions.
The Titans, though, are not that good defensively. Though Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are a good pass-rushing duo, their secondary is awful. It’s allowed opponents to rack up 3,244 yards against the Titans in 12 games. Their run defense is solid, but could be better than giving opponents 4.1 yards per carry. And on offense, pass protection could be better – after all, Mariota has been sacked 18 times.
Most of all comes the Titans’ performance against playoff contenders – the stat that bears the greatest importance when it comes to the Broncos’ matchup. The Titans are 3-5 against playoff contenders, whether that’s teams in division hunts or wild card hunts. They have lost twice to the Colts and once to the Texans, both teams pursuing the AFC South crown (yes, this is how weak that division is). Also, the Titans have lost to both AFC West opponents they have faced so far, the Raiders and the Chargers.
The Titans will have to figure out how to beat playoff contenders if they are going to have any shot at winning the AFC South. And that’s the biggest hurdle they’ll have to overcome when Dec. 11 arrives.
New England Patriots, Dec. 18
We know the story on the Patriots by know. They somehow keep churning out the offensive production, despite not having Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, Rob Gronkowski for a good chunk of the season (he’s now on IR) and an offensive line that hasn’t always been reliable. LeGarrette Blount keeps demonstrating he’s an excellent fit for the Patriots’ offense, Julian Edelman is a steady performer and Martellus Bennett is likely forcing the Patriots to consider keeping him after this season, rather than letting him walk and adding him to the compensatory pick tally. All that offensive production puts the Patriots in the top 10 offenses by any measure, the top five in some.
The defense, though, is another story. Sure, the Patriots might have shut out the Texans, but that’s the Texans we’re talking about. The Patriots tend to relax at times, allowing opponents to get back into games or keeping the score closer than it needs to be. New England doesn’t have a player with more than four sacks this season (the guy with four would be defensive lineman Trey Flowers, who had two at Buffalo and two at home versus the Seahawks). The Patriots aren’t a bad defensive team, but they aren’t exactly a top unit.
As it pertains to the Broncos, the Patriots with Bill Belichick as head coach and Tom Brady as quarterback are 2-8 in Denver, where the Broncos-Patriots matchup just happens to be played. Third-stringer Danny Kanell and just-a-fad Tim Tebow were the QBs in the Broncos’ home losses to New England. Otherwise, the Patriots have been unable to beat the Broncos in Denver, even when playing the likes of gimpy-and-noodle-armed Peyton Manning, disgruntled-with-Mike-Shanahan Jake Plummer, Josh-McDaniels-stopgap Kyle Orton, eventual-career-journeyman Brian Griese and just-a-placeholder-thank-you-very-much Brock Osweiler.
In other words, the Patriots have had issues in Mile High despite the Broncos often rolling out a seriously flawed quarterback, so don’t assume that the Patriots have this one in the bag whether it’s Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch (both flawed QBs) under center. (Now, if third-stringer Austin Davis has to start, we might be dreading what’s to come.)
Kansas City, Dec. 25
Naturally, there will be cause for concern given that the Broncos have to go to the Chiefs’ home field to keep their playoff hopes or chances at the division alive. This comes as the Chiefs are just getting everybody back on defense – a defense that sacked Trevor Siemian five times, thanks in no small part to Ty Sambrailo getting humiliated by Justin Houston. The Chiefs are following the narrative that everybody rolled out last year: They are the playoff contender that nobody talks about but is certain to be giving everybody problems.
To be fair, there are legitimate reasons for the Chiefs fans to have hopes for a deep playoff run. Their defense is playing better at the right time. The D has 14 interceptions, ranked second in the NFL. The pass rush is coming together with 25 sacks through 12 games. And they’ve won five straight road games.
The flipside, though, is the offense still isn’t playing that well. Alex Smith still won’t take shots downfield. They still don’t have consistency in the running game. Their receiving corps is mainly Travis Kelce and whoever happens to show up in a particular game. And when the Chiefs turn the ball over too much, they have problems – in their three losses, they had seven turnovers and forced just three. And while the defense is doing good things, it has, to a degree, underperformed in its last three games and had to rely on big plays (pick six versus Falcons, safety versus Broncos) to counteract its struggles.
Getting to that game against the Broncos, there’s no other way to put it: Were it not for the Chiefs’ special teams shining and the Broncos’ special teams stinking, the Chiefs do not win that Nov. 27 game in Denver. The Chiefs simply cannot count on that happening again. Thus, the Chiefs must stop allowing opponents to move the ball at will as the game progresses and get the offense to move the ball well early on, rather than waiting for the opposing defense to wear itself out. Otherwise, the Chiefs could find themselves going from playoff sleeper to paper tiger – especially when they have the Raiders at home up next and then get what could be a desperate Titans team.
Oakland, Jan 1
The Raiders have been turning heads this season, thanks to the rise of Derek Carr and Khalil Mack hitting his stride. Their 10-2 record and legitimate shot at the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs has head coach Jack Del Rio as a favorite to win Coach of the Year. And, as we know, the Raiders are undefeated in the AFC West, taking home victories against the Broncos, Chiefs and Chargers – the Chargers in a close game, the Broncos in a comfortable win and the Chiefs in an even more comfortable win.
The offense has been terrific. Carr has thrust himself into the talk about MVP candidates. Michael Crabtree has been a good find in free agency and Amari Cooper the same in the draft. The offensive line is one of the best in the NFL. And they’ve been able to rush the ball fairly well despite having a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of.
The defense has come around in recent weeks, but the problem is that it’s been far from dominant, even if people trip over themselves to talk up Mack. The secondary remains a weakness, giving up 3,178 yards passing in 12 games. And the Raiders struggle against the run – they’ve given up 4.9 yards per carry to opponents, the second-worst in the league.
Trevor Siemian is now dealing with a foot injury, but if he comes into that Week 17 game relatively healthy, it’s worth asking if the Raiders will be good enough defensively to do more than just rack up sacks. More importantly, the Raiders’ road to the No. 1 seed runs through the AFC West on the road. They have to go to Kansas City this week, then it’s off to San Diego. After that comes a home matchup against Colts, who could be in desperation mode. Then the Raiders have to show they can close out against the Broncos in Mile High.
In other words, when the Week 17 matchup arrives, the Raiders could find themselves anywhere from “we can rest our starters even if this is a major rivalry our fans always want to win” to “if we don’t win this game, we might not even make the playoffs!” (No, the Raiders have not clinched a playoff spot yet, believe it or not.) The tale about how good the Raiders really are will come when they have to face division rivals on the road – especially division rivals who are fighting for playoff spots, too.
(UPDATE 12:11 P.M. MST: Earlier, I incorrectly wrote that the Raiders gave up 218 yards rushing to the Broncos. That was actually how many rushing yards the Raiders had against the Broncos. My apologies for the error.)