Well, Sunday ended up being the worst case scenario for the Broncos, and the Patriots’ special teams on Monday almost made it even worse. Time to move on to playoff prospects for Week 15.
There’s no other path now: the Broncos must win out, the Chiefs must lose out, and the Raiders must win no more than one more game in order for Denver to win the AFC West. I don’t know the actual odds, but my intuitive odds places them somewhere between “only mostly dead” and “so you’re telling me there’s a chance”. If the best case scenario happens Week 15, then perhaps I’ll talk about this more.
With Pittsburgh winning and Baltimore losing, the preferred path for the AFC North winner becomes clearer: root for the Ravens to fall apart. Fortunately, Baltimore has a somewhat difficult path ahead: home against the Eagles, then closing out with road games at Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. While it might not hurt to root against the Steelers for Week 15 (at Cincinnati) and Week 17 (hosting Cleveland), they are irrelevant to the wild card race as long as Baltimore keeps losing–and the Steelers can work toward that cause by beating the Ravens Week 16. Remember, Denver loses the conference record tiebreaker to Baltimore, so it’s imperative they finish with a better record than the Ravens.
By win-loss record, the Dolphins remain the biggest threat to the Broncos, tied at 8-5. However, their win against the Cardinals also makes it near certain the Broncos will win a tiebreaker against them. That win will create a tie in conference record (both teams went 3-1 against the NFC). The Broncos currently hold the advantage in common games, 2-1 over 1-2, due to the Bengals beating the Dolphins but losing to the Broncos. This could become tied if the Patriots beat the Broncos but lose to the Dolphins, but the strength of victory tiebreaker is heavily in the Broncos’ favor (43.5 wins to 33.5 wins), largely thanks to the Dolphins beating up on the Browns and the dreck of the NFC West. That gets only more lopsided if the Broncos rack up wins against the double digit win teams that await.
One possible danger the Dolphins can pose is if the Patriots clinch the #1 seed before Week 17, thus allowing them to sit their starters against Miami. That can happen if the Patriots win in Weeks 15 and 16 (including over the Broncos), and the Chiefs lose in Weeks 15 and 16 (including to the Broncos). This would put the Broncos at 9-6, and the Dolphins’ record could be any of three possibilities:
- At 10-5, the Broncos would be desperate for the Patriots’ second stringers to come through.
- At 9-6, the Broncos at least control their own destiny, but a loss to the Raiders would bring back the desperation explained above.
- At 8-7, the game is irrelevant to the Broncos.
The best way to avoid this horror, of course, is to beat the Patriots next Sunday. A Denver win makes it very likely the Patriots will have something to play for Week 17. New England may still be able to clinch the #1 seed with losses by both the Chiefs and Raiders, but in this scenario the Broncos have won two straight and are in legitimate contention for the AFC West, so things get much cheerier for them.
For those who pay attention to TV scheduling, I think it’s highly likely that NE/MIA gets moved to the late slot on Week 17. This is because both OAK/DEN and KC/SD must be played late, and the Patriots could be fighting the Chiefs or Raiders for the #1 seed, while the Broncos could be fighting the Dolphins for the #6 seed. The NFL will want all those games to be played at the same time so no one team gets advance knowledge of what they need to do.
As for the AFC South, the only way that division can interfere with the Broncos is if both they and the Titans go 9-7 and either the Texans or Colts win the division. The Titans would hold the head to head tiebreaker over both the Broncos and Dolphins if all three went 9-7. (The Steelers and Ravens could eliminate all three of these teams with the conference tiebreaker.) So while we’ll want the Titans to beat the Chiefs next week (if Kansas City wins the Broncos cannot win the AFC West), after that they need to either get really hot and win the division, or get really cold and lose out. Their final two games are at Jacksonville and home versus Houston.