It’s been inexcusably too long since the opportunity to bring back this project with viability has come. And yet, here are the Broncos at 6-5, with the same record as the current #7 that they just defeated, and only one game out of first place in the AFC West. It is indeed viable to talk about where the Broncos are in the AFC playoff race.
But for those of you that are more pessimistic about the Broncos’ playoff hopes, unfortunately I would say that projections that only have Denver’s chances in the high 20s–like Football Outsiders or FiveThirtyEight–are likely accurate. Let’s break down the challenges the Broncos face ahead.
The good news is that two-thirds of the slate against the AFC West is still clean: two games against the Chiefs upcoming, and one each against the Raiders and Chargers. Every AFC West team has at least one division win, and at least one division loss. And the team with the current best division record–the Chargers–is the one the Broncos currently hold a head to head tiebreaker over.
If the Broncos win all four of those games–a very daunting task–winning the AFC West is very highly likely. If they win three out of those four, winning the division is of course less likely, but the odds of holding the division record tiebreaker over any given team are still high–which would be good, because the tiebreakers among division rivals get much worse after the division record tiebreaker.
The next tiebreaker would be record against common opponents. This is problematic for Denver because they are 2-0 against such opponents (Jets, Jaguars) with the third being against the current worst team in the NFL in the Lions. Two other teams are guaranteed to hold this tiebreaker over the Broncos due to losing to two non-common opponents: the Chiefs (Bills, Titans) and Chargers (Patriots, Vikings). The Raiders will also control this tiebreaker if they lose to either Washington or Indianapolis (they already lost to the Bears)–though of course the Raiders losing those games are much more preferable.
What makes this additionally problematic is that if the Broncos are in a three or more way tie for a wild card that involves an AFC West rival, division tiebreakers are applied before tiebreakers among non-division foes. Therefore, it’s imperative that the Broncos get their business done in the division, so they can gain those division record tiebreakers before the common opponents tiebreaker kicks in.
Should the Broncos fall out of contention in the AFC West, the team that’s by far the best to win it instead would be the Chiefs, and it would be ideal for them to be locked into a specific seed, or at least out of contention for the #1 seed. That’s because they play the Broncos in the last week of the season, and Andy Reid is a firm believer in sitting starters when his teams have nothing to play for in regular season. That could allow the Broncos to get a cheap but needed win if they’re still alive for the playoffs, but haven’t clinched a spot yet.
To make matters worse, many of the tiebreakers against the rest of the conference are not going the Broncos’ way, either.
The primary problem is their bad record against the AFC North: the Ravens, Steelers, and Browns all hold head to head tiebreakers over them. Denver needs to avoid going up against any of them straight up. For purposes of the wild card (this would not be preferable if the Broncos win the AFC West, but at least they’d be guaranteed the playoffs in that scenario), due to the Ravens’ ugly win over the Browns on Sunday night, the best thing for the Broncos would be for the Ravens to run away with the AFC North, while the Steelers and Browns lose as many games as possible (with the obvious exception of the Browns against the Raiders and the Steelers against the Chiefs), taking them decidedly out of the playoff hunt.
Then, there’s the Bengals, the one AFC North team the Broncos still have a chance to gain a head to head tiebreaker over. Obviously, after the AFC West games, that’s the next most important one to win. Should the Broncos lose that game, then they will also need them to lose as many games as possible. But they still have games against the Chargers and Chiefs that the Broncos would still want Cincinnati to defeat, thus tightening the margin of error against them.
The last problem to mention against the remaining AFC foes is conference record. The Broncos have already sustained four losses in the AFC, while the Titans, Colts, and Bills all have only three, and the Patriots only have one. This could get more imbalanced given that the Broncos’ most likely upcoming win is against a non-conference opponent in Detroit. If any of these four teams most win games, root for them to be against NFC foes. The Bills are most susceptible in losing conference tiebreakers, with the Bucs, Panthers, and Falcons all upcoming. The Titans and Colts each have one left (49ers, Cardinals), while the Patriots have none. So for wild card purposes, it’s probably best for the Patriots to win the AFC East (I know that will disappoint many of you), for one of the Titans or Colts to clearly fall out of contention (Indy perhaps being more likely as they sit at 6-6), with the Bills the most preferable to go up against.
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The most likely game for the Broncos to lose is their next one: at Arrowhead on Sunday Night Football. Should the Broncos lose that game, their playoff hopes will look bleaker, but will by no means be gone, and there is no reason to panic yet. A win against the lowly Lions is practically imperative, even if it’s logically the least important of the wins. A win against the Bengals will be very handy–but if they were to go 1-2 over the next three weeks, there is still reasonable hope if they can sweep the three remaining AFC West games.
As far as other teams go, to sum up the long version typed above, aside from the obvious of wishing the worst upon AFC West rivals, the most viable path as it stands now would be wanting the Ravens, Patriots, and potentially Titans to win, and for the Colts, Bills, Bengals, and especially Steelers and Browns to lose as many non-AFC West rival games as possible. But this, of course, could dramatically change based up on the results of Week 13. Stay tuned.