NFL Playoff Scenarios: Ranking the Denver Broncos' Best and Worst Matchups
The Denver Broncos (may) enter the playoffs in 2011 as the fourth seed on paper and the sixth seed in everyone's minds.
They plan to join a class of five other teams in the AFC that could all have more wins in 2011 than the Broncos do.
Every team Denver potentially faces has strengths and weaknesses that Denver may or may not have the ability to exploit.
As the fourth seed, Denver could potentially play three games in the AFC playoffs before heading to Indy.
Starting with the worst matchup Denver could fall victim to and ending with the best, let's take a look at what Tim Tebow and the Broncos potentially face in January.
Worst: New England Patriots
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
The last thing anyone in Denver wants in the New Year is another rout of the Broncos by Tom Brady and company. Denver will have its best chance in the playoffs if they find a way to avoid playing the Patriots.
Brady took Denver's six-game winning streak and turned it into ancient history.
Denver's defense helped, too. They hardly pressured Brady, while focusing almost all of their attention on tight end superstar Rob Gronkowski.
Meanwhile, tight end up-and-comer Aaron Hernandez ripped Denver's secondary to pieces and taught Denver that when Brady is playing, there is just no way to stop the pass.
A defense can only cover so many star receivers, and New England has too many.
Even should-have-been-retired Chad Ochocinco finally found his way back to relevancy in Denver when he reeled in a long touchdown pass to break the Patriots away from Denver early on.
And this all happened at home. Denver will not have the luxury of hosting the Patriots again.
If they do plan a trip to Indy, it may very well go through Foxborough, Massachusetts.
This would be the end of the road trip and Denver's season.
Still Terrifying: Baltimore Ravens
Larry French/Getty Images
If the first seed wasn't scary enough for the Super Bowl hopeful Denver Broncos, the second seed is hardly any better.
The Baltimore Ravens came into the 2011 season as Super Bowl favorites.
Now, in Week 17, they are still near the top of the list and look to cruise towards at least an AFC Championship game in late January.
The Ravens may be suspect when facing less-than-stellar teams in 2011, but the playoffs have a way of motivating good teams. Unless of course we're talking about the San Diego Chargers—and we're not.
If Denver does find a way through the Wild Card round they'll face either the Patriots or the Ravens—neither of which will be an easy task.
Denver's offense appears anemic at times and faces a terrible matchup against the Ravens defense.
The Broncos were able to win against a similar Chicago defense earlier this year, but they did so against an offense that actually appeared less potent than their own—not to mention the incredible help Marion Barber contributed late in the game.
If Denver faces Baltimore, the Chicago game does give us an idea of how it should go down.
Denver will need to keep Baltimore to less than 13 points.
This is, by all means, unlikely.
Middle Ground: Pittsburgh Steelers
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
This is the most likely matchup for Denver this year as Pittsburgh looks to be traveling to Denver for the Wild Card round in less than two weeks.
I wish this was a better looking game for Denver, but it's not.
Pittsburgh doesn't possess a high-flying offense like that of the Patriots. They also don't possess the tornado of a defense that Baltimore boasts week in and week out.
The trouble for Denver is that Pittsburgh is just barely short of having both.
With the right turn of events in Week 17, Pittsburgh could seal the top seed in the AFC. That's a big swing from the fifth.
This team may be in the bottom-two of the AFC Playoff picture now, but they're far from fifth best.
San Francisco managed to handle Pittsburgh effectively not long ago with a gameplan similar to what Denver should run. Alex Smith was a game manager for the 49ers, just as Tebow should remain for the Broncos.
San Fran ran the ball effectively and their defense shut down Big Ben.
The differences are that the 49ers have the most consistent defense in the league and their game managing quarterback possesses more finely-tuned passing skills than that of the Broncos.
This is a winnable game for Denver, but by no means will it be an easy one.
Looking Good: Bengals/Raiders/Jets/Titans
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Any team scraping into the playoffs is still a dangerous one.
But there's upside to every NFL equation, especially when the Broncos matchup with the sixth seed in the AFC picture.
This game could only happen if Denver and the sixth seed manage to make it all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Unlikely, of course, but possible.
The Broncos have a very slight edge on every team that could potentially make this spot.
The Broncos have already beaten three of them and could have beaten the fourth were it not for very poor decision-making on the part of the coaching staff.
The Raiders would be chomping at the bit to end Denver's season, so the Broncos' faithful would most likely wish for that matchup not to happen.
The Bengals were actually beaten by the Denver offense that was destroyed, traded away and cut once Tebow took the lead. They also feature a rookie QB and rookie wide receiver that anchors the team.
The Jets are one self-destruction away from hardly being considered an NFL team anymore. The way it looks, the Jets are more of a reality TV show than they are professionals. It's a shame their coach can't seem to shut his mouth.
Lastly, the Titans beat Denver in a real "nail-biter" early in the season when Denver failed on a fourth down conversion and gave the Titans a path towards a go-ahead score. The Denver defense is the same since, the offense scores just as many points, but there's been the addition of Denver's X-Factor—Tim Tebow.
This matchup is the least likely to happen in the 2011 AFC Playoffs, which is why it's unfortunate that it's one of the most ideal for Denver.
Best: Houston Texans
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Denver fans should be praying that this team has the opportunity to face the Texans in the playoffs this year.
Of course, that would mean the Texans—who have yet to play a playoff game in franchise history—would need to win a couple of games first.
If, by some force of nature or act of God, the Broncos find themselves traveling to Houston for an AFC Title matchup, Denver fans should rejoice in what could be an easy win.
Then again, if Houston were to manage its way into the AFC Title game, who knows what else they could do? The league has seen stranger things, and I can't say I would be shocked to see this happen.
All hypotheticals and prophecies aside, this matchup is, by far, the best possible for Denver in January.
Who wouldn't want to take on a rookie quarterback who might be missing the most dangerous receiving threat in the league for a chance at the Super Bowl?
Tim Tebow is no seasoned veteran, but he's got worlds of talent on T.J. Yates.
The Denver defense, and Defensive Rookie of the Year hopeful Von Miller, would love a chance at an easy game like this one to keep their championship hopes alive.
It's just too bad that the first three teams on this list are the three most likely to face Denver next month—too bad for Denver that is.