Week 14 went mostly well for the Broncos. They got an impressive win–and honored a fallen old friend well in the process–and while it got nailbiting in some cases, they got some help from other teams across the league.
And yet…they are still 10th in line for a seven team AFC playoff field. Most playoff odds sites peg them at only around 20%. But just as it was expected that this would not change over a loss to the Chiefs, it was also expected that this would not change much over a win to the Lions. Their fate, for better or worse, is far from determined.
It was an antiperfect week for the Raiders, who got gloriously humiliated by one of their division rivals, and saw the other two both get big wins. This was crippling for them, as they are now in a real bad spot in the division with the most AFC West losses. The Chargers beating the Giants was not ideal, but it was much better than the Raiders winning, as the Broncos still have a chance to secure that head to head tiebreaker over them if they sweep them on Week 17, and take care of that one game lead the Chargers still hold over them.
Meanwhile, what to make of next Thursday’s game? A Chiefs win would be safer for the Broncos making the playoffs in general, but a Chargers win would be much better for chances of winning the AFC West. If the Chiefs win, they up their division record to 4-1, the Broncos would have no margin of error in their AFC West games if they want to compete for the division title, and two losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati–contenders of the Broncos for playoff bids themselves–may end up being required.
Since I tend to lean into the theory of “shit happens in the playoffs”, I would also lean into just getting them in, and pull for the Chiefs on Thursday. But unlike Kansas City’s last game against Las Vegas, this one is less clear cut.
What do we make of the AFC North? Baltimore just lost to Cleveland and may be without Lamar Jackson for some time, or if he does play, he might be playing hurt. Had the Bengals beaten the 49ers–which thankfully they didn’t–they would ejected the Ravens out of the division lead. That would have been bad for the Broncos for wild card purposes, as both the Ravens and Browns have head to head tiebreakers over them, while they can still gain it over the Bengals next week.
Of course, if the Broncos lose to the Bengals, then it matters not who the AFC North champion is–all four teams would have beaten Denver. But if the Broncos do take care of business against Cincinnati, then let’s take a look at who the other AFC North teams have coming up. Baltimore is taking on a non-threatening NFC team in Green Bay, so it’s obvious to pull for the Packers there. Pittsburgh is taking on Tennessee, a team that’s likely to win the AFC South due to having a two game lead plus head to head sweep, so Titan up for that game. Cleveland, on the other hand, is taking on Las Vegas, and while it’s tempting to feel the Raiders are all dead, it’s not yet time to go through their clothes and look for loose change. If the Browns have the perfect week, winning while all their rivals lose, that gets them in the division lead, clearly puts Denver ahead of Cincinnati, and draws Baltimore even to Denver with tough games against the Bengals and Rams to follow. That path looks to me to be the best for Week 15.
The other two teams that need some losing are the Bills and Colts. The one team that’s going to be far and away the best friend for the Broncos in that regard will be New England, who draws Indianapolis and Buffalo in back to back weeks. So yes, you should be rooting for the Patriots to take care of business against both of them. This is particularly urgent for the Bills, whose other three games are the Panthers, Falcons, and Jets. The Colts, on the other hand, have a game against the Cardinals looming after the Patriots, a better opportunity for a loss. Then, in Week 17, they’re at home against the Raiders. Hopefully by then Las Vegas’s playoff hopes won’t be merely mostly dead, and hopefully the Colts will also be out of contention by then, lest it set up a scenario where Broncos fans would want in a result that necessitates the Raiders winning.
Finally, I suppose we shouldn’t discount the Dolphins, quietly lurking at 6-7. They’re at home against the Jets Week 15, a likely win, but also close out with two road games against the Saints and Titans before ending the season against the Patriots. It seems like they’ll get some losses in there, but I’ll handle them with more detail if it becomes necessary down the road.
In sum, for Week 15, I would say go Broncos, Browns, Packers, Titans, Patriots, Panthers, Jets, and very lightly Chiefs.