Very little went the Broncos’ way last week: they of course lost, and most of the other games did not go their way, either. One of the few that did may have arguably been a narrow victory by the Raiders of all teams. But things are not doomed. Here is the remaining path to the playoffs available.
To quote Muhammad Ali, with a paraphrase twist popularized by Lee Corso: “They’ve got two chances: slim, and none, and Slim’s walking out the door.”
Bryan Knowles has the visual ugliness here if you want to see it: there are 128 different ways the AFC West could turn out. 119 them have the Chiefs winning, 8 for the Chargers, and just one–yes, one–for the Broncos. In order for that Lloyd Christmas chance to work out, the following would need to happen:
- Broncos win out
- Chiefs lose out (Steelers and Bengals, in addition to the Broncos)
- Chargers win out, except for losing to the Broncos (Texans and Raiders)
In that scenario, all three of those teams finish at 10-7, and the Broncos win the AFC West based on the three way head to head record (3-1 for Denver, vs. 2-2 for Kansas City and 1-3 for San Angeles).
But let’s get real–the Chiefs are highly likely to win this division for the 6th straight season, and what needs to happen here would put the Broncos’ wild card chances at much greater risk. So let’s turn to that.
The bad news is that there are eight teams ahead of the Broncos for wild card purposes. The good news is that they are all within the band of 8-6 to 7-7, so at most the Broncos are only one game plus a tiebreaker behind them.
Two of these teams, the most important because they’re in the division, can be neutralized by beating them in the next two weeks. Beating the Raiders will stick them with a fourth AFC West loss, and beating the Chargers will stick them with getting swept head to head. Win both of those games, and the Raiders will always be behind the Broncos, while the only way the Chargers can get ahead would be winning the other two games while the Broncos lose Week 18 to the Chiefs.
That leaves six other teams vying for three spots. Let’s start with the ones outside the AFC North.
- The Dolphins have jumped ahead of the Broncos, so losses by them are needed. The good news is that they have two tough road games against the Saints and Titans upcoming, before closing at home against a Patriots team that could still be vying for the #1 seed. Getting them to lose at least twice seems doable.
- The Colts’ next game is on the road on Christmas against a Cardinals team that just got embarrassed by the team with the former worst record in the league. Let’s hope they are pissed off and take it out against the Colts. Then, they take on the Raiders at home. Provided that the Broncos take care of business against the Raiders and Chargers, there really is not much of a choice but to want a Colts defeat that results in a Raiders win that week. That’s because they close the season against the hapless Jaguars, a likely win for them.
- The Bills are likely to be problematic, because after a road trip to New England, they have two very easy home games against the Falcons and Jets. They are likely to finish at least 10-7. The Broncos would be likely to beat the Bills in a strength of victory tiebreaker, but it would of course necessitate winning out.
Now, onto the problematic AFC North, which is so since the Broncos lost to all four of those teams, and need to avoid head to head tiebreakers against them. For wild card purposes, one of them can be obviated by winning the division. Who that should be will be tricky, since they have a lot of games against each other. Let’s start with the games that can be considered easily due to being interconference games. That would be the Browns taking on the Packers and the Ravens taking on the Rams. Next up is hard reality that the Chiefs are taking on the Steelers and Bengals. That can get the Browns down to 8 losses, and the other three down to 7.
But the remaining problem is all those games against each other. Barring ties, at least two of those teams are going to end up getting to 9 wins, and at most only two can get to 9 losses. Who is who is completely up in the air right now. The first sign of some certainly will come in next week’s Ravens/Bengals game. The next sign would then come on the last Monday night game between the Browns and Steelers.
In sum, I think it’s highly likely that the Bills and at least one AFC North team are going to lay claim to two of the wild cards. The Broncos grabbing the third will need a collapse by the Colts and Dolphins and a deadlock of the bottom two AFC North teams. The Chargers could also still get in the way if they win both their non-Broncos games while the Broncos can also get to 9-8.
There is also a scenario where the Broncos can be eliminated after Week 16. That would result from losing to the Raiders, while the Bills beat the Patriots, the Colts beat the Cardinals, and the Ravens and Bengals don’t tie. The Broncos would sustain their seventh conference loss, while the Bills and Colts would both have seven conference wins, making both of them insurmountable. And for the last wild card spot, as described above, barring ties, at least two AFC North teams are going to get to 9 wins, and the Broncos lose all the head to head tiebreakers against them. They could still finish second in the AFC West but would still be out along with the Raiders and Chargers.
To close this on a brighter note, along with the regular necessity of the Broncos beating the Raiders, root for wins by the Chiefs (unless you want to extremely dream of an AFC West title), Texans, Patriots, Cardinals, Saints, and Packers. Also keep an eye on Ravens/Bengals to figure out the future of the fate of those two teams.