Well…Week 14 did not go as hoped, not only for the Broncos’ game itself but also for most other games where Denver needed other teams to lose. Yet despite that, the Broncos’ playoff hopes are not dead yet–although the injuries to key star players have then dangerously treading into the “mostly dead” zone.
The 49ers game was the one game the Broncos could relatively most afford to lose.
I didn’t explicitly list this in past updates due to raising the embarrassing implication of losing to a double digit loss team, but now that it’s a reality, here it is. Since the 49ers are an NFC team, this loss does not damage tiebreaker situations with other AFC teams. So in a sense, the Broncos are somewhat back to where they were a couple weeks earlier when they were back one game from most other AFC wild card contenders.
But with fewer games left, the margin of error is undoubtedly lower. Due to this, it would be instructive to get the worst case scenario for Week 15 out of the way now: the Broncos would be officially eliminated with a loss to the Browns, combined with wins by either: the Ravens and Steelers, or one of the Ravens or Steelers plus wins by both the Titans and Colts. The Broncos cannot be eliminated before Week 16 if they win, even if other games go the wrong ways.
The Chargers are now uncatchable, so there’s no choice left but root for them to lock up the #5 playoff seed.
With ten wins, something the Broncos cannot get, that is why. So what is the path to get the Chargers into this position, so they could be inclined to sit starters in Denver Week 17?
First, you want the Chiefs to beat the Chargers this Thursday night. That will give Kansas City the AFC West. Second, the Ravens must lose to either Tampa Bay this week, or to the Chargers in Week 16. Furthermore, if the Chargers win on Thursday, that means there’s no way they can be eliminated from the AFC West before Week 17 that doesn’t also hurt the Broncos, as we’ll get into below. So for those of you uncomfortable pulling for a Kansas City win last week against the Ravens (which they barely got), you’ll have to chin up and do the same for the Chiefs on Thursday.
The Ravens or Steelers must lose two games.
The Broncos are still a full game behind Ravens, with Baltimore holding the head to head tiebreaker, and a game and a half back of the Steelers. Thus, whichever one of these teams does not win the AFC North needs to lose two games.
As crazy as it would have sounded earlier in the season, it may actually be Pittsburgh that’s in more threat of collapsing than Baltimore. Losing to the Raiders is of course a clear indication of that, but next up they have the Patriots (who they never do well against) and the Saints (a prime NFC contender). They could easily fall to 8-7-1 and out of the playoffs altogether.
The Ravens, meanwhile, have it a bit easier. Clearly, Week 16 against the Chargers is the most likely loss for them. (To make the above point clearer, Broncos fans want the Chargers to lose this week but win the next week.) But pulling for losses against either the Bucs Week 15, or the Browns Week 17, both in Baltimore, will be more daunting–particularly since the Bucs’ season is now on life support, and the Browns would be eliminated by Week 17 by incurring a loss to the Broncos in this scenario.
The Colts and Titans must each lose one game.
The Broncos can still sustain tiebreakers over both of these AFC South teams should they finish at 9-7. And it remains guaranteed that one of them will finish with at least seven losses since they play each other in Week 17. Both teams have to play the Giants, who are playing some inspired football in recent weeks despite their horrible start. The Colts also draw the rising Cowboys next week, so one could only hope for more Amari Cooper magic, not only to help the Broncos, but to soak more salt in the self inflicted wounds of the Raiders.
The Dolphins must lose an AFC game.
As much as all you Patriots haters may have loved this play on that principle, that was actually a devastating play against the Broncos’ playoff hopes. The Patriots were the most likely team to give the Dolphins a loss that Denver really needed.
But now? That Dolphins win renders their next most likely loss, against the Vikings in the NFC, irrelevant. That’s because even if the Dolphins do lose that one, they’d be guaranteed to beat Denver on the AFC record tiebreaker if they win their last two. So they must instead lose a gain against an AFC opponent.
And who are those final two AFC opponents? The Jaguars and Bills, two teams that have already been eliminated. That’s why I believe that of all that needs to go right out of the Broncos’ control, this will be the toughest part of the equation to meet.