The Broncos’ win over the Chargers may have saved whatever hopes they have at making the playoffs in 2018. So let’s seize the moment to see what it would take to get there.
The odds on the AFC West title are sadly in Lloyd Christmas territory.
This one’s brutally simple: Denver needs to win six straight, and Kansas City needs to lose seven straight, including tonight’s game against the Rams. Should the Chiefs win even one game, there’s no way that the Broncos can catch them. So get this while it’s still hot: the path that the Broncos can earn the AFC’s #1 seed, while the rest of the AFC West misses the playoffs.
Note that in a three way tie between the Broncos, Chiefs, and Chargers at 10-6, the Chiefs still win the division. This is because in a three way tie, the worst team is eliminated first. That would be the Chargers, even in a best case scenario where Denver has a 4-2 division record while Kansas City and San Angeles are at 3-3, because the Chiefs are guaranteed to have a better common games record than the Chargers due to the Chargers already winning their two uncommon games against the Bills and Titans, while the Chiefs have lost to the Patriots. Taking the Chargers out first, Kansas City then wins the head to head tiebreaker over Denver.
But a wild card spot is very much wide open.
Among the non-division leaders in the AFC, the Broncos are the only 4-6 team. There are no 6-4 teams, and the only 7-3 team are the Chargers, who the Broncos already have a win against. In the middle of that are five 5-5 teams: the Dolphins, Ravens, Bengals, Colts and Titans. If the Broncos can put together a streak like Mike Shanahan did with the 2012 Redskins, they just need help from each of those teams with losses. And even if the Broncos sustain a seventh or perhaps eighth loss, all is not yet lost.
Root for the Texans and Ravens to either win their divisions, or completely fall apart.
This one’s simple: the Broncos lose head to head tiebreakers against both, and thus need to avoid being matched up directly with them in wild card tiebreakers. At 7-3, the Texans feel more likely to win their division, while at 5-5 the Ravens feel more likely to fall apart. So we’ll focus more on Baltimore here. They need to lose at least two games for the Broncos to catch them, and at least three if the Broncos lose one more game. I’d rank their remaining games in order from most to least likely to lose as: Chiefs, Chargers, Falcons, Bucs, Browns, Raiders. Giving the Chargers a win complicates things, obviously, and past Atlanta things look really dicey for potential losses for them.
The Bengals game is the most important game for the Broncos to win, and the 49ers game the least important.
Again, this is obvious: the Bengals are the only one of the 5-5 teams the Broncos have on their schedule, and a win at Cincinnati secures a head to head tiebreaker over them. On the other end, since the 49ers are out of conference a loss to them would be the least damaging for the Broncos’ playoff hopes. (But of course, if they lose to one of the worst teams in the NFL then they likely have bigger problems anyway.)
The 49ers game is the least important because as it stands now, the Broncos are at a disadvantage with AFC records at 2-5. Among the other 5-5 teams, the Ravens are 5-3, the Bengals 3-3, the Dolphins 4-3, the Colts 4-4, and the Titans 3-5. All those AFC records will worsen as a result of the Broncos getting within enough range of them, but if any of those teams must win, they should be against NFC opponents.
The Chargers are still three games away, but are very catchable.
Let’s illustrate how important that win in
Denver South Carson was. The Broncos close out the regular season with another game against them. If they win that, they gain a game on the Chargers, and also get the head to head tiebreaker. That means the Chargers would need to lose at least two more in order to be condemned to being automatically eliminated in wild card tiebreakers due to the (admittedly stupid) rule that division tiebreakers must be run before conference tiebreakers even among three or more teams.
In between the two Denver games, the Chargers have the Cardinals, Steelers, Bengals, Chiefs, and Ravens. The Steelers and (sadly) Chiefs look like the most likely losses, and neither of those teams would be likely wild card challengers to the Broncos. The Cardinals are a likely win. The Ravens and Bengals are where things get really complicated as to whom to root for, as those two teams will pose wild card challenges to the Broncos. Should the Broncos beat the Bengals, Cincinnati’s very next game against the Chargers becomes one where it might actually be better for the Chargers to win.
I haven’t even gotten into scenarios involving the Dolphins, Colts, and Titans, as that would make an already lengthy article bleed longer. So feel free to play around with playoff simulations of your own to see what you can come up with.