For a complete prediction of the AFC playoff bracket, please scroll to the bottom of the article.
The scheduling Gods have been kind to the Denver Broncos in 2012.
Sure, they had to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons and New England Patriots within the first five weeks of the season, but in the second half of the season, where every game truly counts, the Broncos have been granted some lovely matchups.
Denver sits at 6-3 heading into Week 11, and when you look at the games to come, a 12-4 or even a 13-3 season is well within the realm of reality. It would almost take an apocalypse for Denver to finish with a record worse than 11-5, and I have money riding AGAINST the Mayans.
In their seven remaining game, they face their division rival, the Kansas City Chiefs, twice. The only greater gift than this for an NFL team this season is facing the Jacksonville Jaguars twice in the second half of the season. Sure the Chiefs have some talent, but they have an extraordinary inability to win, or for that matter, even hold a lead in a game. These games should result in two easy wins for the Broncos.
This upcoming Sunday, Denver will face its other division rival, the San Diego Chargers. In a severely-divided AFC West, the Chargers are the next best team to the Bronco. That's saying something, because nothing about the Chargers has looked too good lately. In the past three weeks, they put up only six points against the lowly Cleveland Browns, beat the Chiefs easily (a testament to how bad the Chiefs truly are), and then lost decidedly to the Tampa Bay Bucs. Vegas has the line this Sunday at 7.5 in the Broncos' favor, and I like them to cover that spread. That's another win for Denver.
Denver also has two other very winnable games against the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns. The Raiders have a potent offense, yet their defense has been among the worst in the league, and Peyton Manning and Co. should be able to shred it like they did in their 37-6 Week 4 win. The Browns are a tough little football team, but the day that Brandon Weeden outdoes Peyton Manning will be a scary day. (That game is on December 23, two days after the purported "Mayan doomsday.")
Denver's two biggest tests will come against the Tampa Bay Bucs in Week 13 and the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15. The Bucs have looked like a new team lately, and I like running back Doug Martin's chances against any defense he faces. Despite their offense, however, the Bucs' passing defense is particularly bad, and the Broncos No. 1 passing offense should have no trouble against it. The Week 15 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, in Baltimore, is without question the toughest game for Denver to win. Baltimore is a fantastic team at home, yet they face the Pittsburgh Steelers twice in the next three weeks, and will face the Washington Redskins the week before facing the Broncos. The Redskins should be no contest for the Ravens, and this could work for or against the Broncos. It could spell trap game for the Ravens, as Denver could catch them off-guard after an easy win. For argument's sake, I'll say that the Ravens win the game.
When the season ends on December 30, the Broncos should have a 12-4 record, which will easily have them winning the AFC West. The question then becomes how the rest of the AFC division winners will finish.
The Houston Texans (8-1) will get the No. 1 seed in the AFC, finishing with a 13-3 record. They will lose to the Patriots and the Colts.
The Baltimore Ravens (7-2) will lose their Week 13 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers and will also lose to the Giants in Week 16. This will leave them with four losses heading into their week 17 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. This game could go either way, and it will largely depend on the Ravens' standing heading into the game. If they have the division locked up already, then I see the Bengals winning a game where Ravens starters head to the bench early, which would drop the Ravens to 11-5. If it's a battle to secure the division, however, I see the Ravens winning the game and finishing with a 12-4 record.
Given the injury to Ben Roethlisberger, I see the Steelers dropping their next two games (against the Ravens and the Browns), which drops them to five losses by Week 13. The Ravens should thereby have the division clinched heading into Week 17. While they will obviously be playing tough to secure the first-round bye in the playoffs, I think the Bengals, with a lot less to lose, will play tougher and upset the Ravens. This will leave the Ravens with a final record of 11-5, and secure Denver the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs.
Predicted AFC Playoff Bracket, as of Week 11
1. Houston Texans (13-3)*
2. Denver Broncos (12-4)*
3. Baltimore Ravens (11-5)
4. New England Patriots (11-5)
5. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5)
6. Indianapolis Colts (10-6)
*denotes first-round bye