The Denver Broncos currently stand at a record of 10-3 through the first 14 weeks of the NFL season. With the Patriots' 42-14 blowout victory over the Houston Texans on Monday night, the Patriots are also at 10-3, with the Texans at 11-2. The Ravens are right behind them with a 9-4 record, with the Colts and the Steelers currently slotted in the Wild Card spots.
If the playoffs were to start today, Denver would be slotted as the No. 3 seed. The Broncos lose the head-to-head tiebreaker based upon their Week 5 loss to the Patriots. The Texans would be the No. 1 seed, with New England at No. 2. The Ravens would be the fourth seed, with the Colts as the fifth and the Steelers as the sixth seed.
The Broncos would end up hosting Pittsburgh on Wild Card weekend for the second straight year. With three weeks left in the season, a lot can change still. Denver still has to visit Baltimore in Week 15, and all Denver needs is one loss by New England in the final three games of the regular season to have a chance of overtaking them for the No. 2 seed.
Denver has already clinched its division and will be no worse than the fourth seed entering the postseason. The Broncos will host at least one playoff game.
What are Denver's chances against the rest of the AFC playoff contenders?
The Steelers currently stand at a record of 7-6, with the Bengals also having the same record, but losing the tiebreaker by default of the Steelers' victory over Cincinnati earlier in the season.
Pittsburgh is an annual playoff contender, and since Ben Roethlisberger broke into the NFL in 2004, the Steelers have advanced to the postseason in six of his eight seasons in the league. However, the Steelers are in danger of missing the playoffs if they don't get their act together.
Even if Pittsburgh is to advance to the postseason, it will have a hard time winning regardless of their opponent. Especially versus a team like Denver, it's hard to envision the Steelers pulling off an upset.
They are simply not as good as they have been in prior seasons; in fact, they're not even as good as they were last year. A lot of that has to do with injuries. Ben's injury hurt the Steelers a little bit, and he's still recovering from the effects of a shoulder injury suffered a month ago.
But it is the Steelers we're talking about here, and although they have slipped defensively from being the No. 1 defense in the NFL last year, they still have the seventh-best defense in the NFL.
The reason why this matchup is favorable for the Broncos? The Steelers defense had a hard time slowing down Peyton Manning in his first game back after a full season out of action. Manning is a lot better than he was in Week 1.
The Steelers' offense cannot keep up with the Broncos' offense. Denver's offense is one of the very best in the NFL, ranking second in the NFL by scoring nearly 29 points a game. Pittsburgh's offense ranks 19th in the NFL, scoring a little over 21 points a game.
If Pittsburgh's defense can somehow find the fountain of youth and force a few turnovers, Pittsburgh might have a sliver of hope.
However, the more likely scenario is the Steelers simply can't keep up with Manning and Denver's offense.
Therefore, the Broncos would love to see Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
The Colts currently stand at 9-4 as the fifth seed in the AFC Playoffs. The Colts still have an outside shot of winning the AFC South, as they have two games remaining versus the division leader Texans.
The only way this matchup realistically happens in the Wild Card round is if Denver slips to the fourth seed. This can easily happen if the Broncos lose to Baltimore this upcoming Sunday. However, if Denver can win in Baltimore this weekend, the Broncos will wrap up the third seed.
Andrew Luck has made a strong case for Rookie of the Year as he has led a Colts team that was just 2-14 last season into the playoff race in his rookie season. Luck's numbers aren't exactly impressive, as he has thrown as many interceptions (18) as he has touchdowns (18).
However, the numbers that are impressive outside of the record is the fact that he has led the Colts to six game-winning drives and four comeback victories—both of which lead the NFL.
The Colts have overachieved. They rank just 17th in points scored and 23rd in points allowed. Uncharacteristic of a playoff team, they rank third-to-last in takeaway/giveaway differential with a minus-16 differential.
They have been aided by a weak schedule in the AFC South. Seven of the Colts' nine victories have come against teams with losing records. Both victories against teams of at least a .500 record have come against NFC Conference teams.
If Peyton Manning gets to meet his replacement, Andrew Luck, in the playoffs, it would make for a great storyline and likely great ratings.
Would it make for a great game?
Most likely no. The game would likely go the route of the Week 11 game between the Colts and the Patriots led by Tom Brady. The Patriots won that game 59-24 with Luck playing like a rookie, throwing three interceptions.
A similar result would likely happen against the Manning-led Broncos.
The Broncos have played three of their possible five matchups in the AFC playoffs so far in the regular season. They play their fourth this Sunday in the Ravens.
The Ravens stand at 9-4 and are at a crossroads seeing as that they are on a two-game losing streak. Both losses have come against teams led by backup quarterbacks in Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins.
The Ravens have struggled mightily since Lewis and top cornerback Lardarius Webb were lost due to injuries. In Baltimore's first game after Lewis was injured versus the Cowboys in Week 6, they were thumped by the Texans 43-13. The Ravens did defeat New England 31-30 in Week 3, but ironically, the Patriots thumped the Texans in return 42-14 in Week 14.
Funny how things work in the NFL.
The Broncos will get a glimpse of what to expect when they visit Baltimore this Sunday. The reason why this matchup is a bit dangerous for the Broncos in the playoffs is because of how dangerous a team Baltimore can be.
Is it true they haven't looked like the AFC contender that they looked pre-Lewis injury? Sure.
But if they get Ray back and look anywhere close to the team we saw come one play short of the Super Bowl last season, this team could very well advance to the Super Bowl.
The defense is veteran-laden and the team is battle-tested. In coach John Harbaugh's four seasons with the team, Baltimore has advanced to the postseason every year. Two times they have advanced to the AFC Championship game.
The team is balanced, as it ranks ninth in offense and 10th in defense. However, the defense does rank 24th in yards allowed, and it has allowed four 300-yard passers in 13 games. That is unheard of for a Ravens defense.
The 3-4 defense normally causes problems with quarterbacks such as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, who rely on footwork rather than speed to escape the pressure of defense. However, 3-4 defenses usually thrive on pressure from all angles, including on the interior.
Despite Manning and Brady's excellent prowess and footwork, if there is pressure up the interior of the line, it makes it nearly impossible for a quarterback to step into his throws and complete them.
The Broncos have the edge over the Ravens in this matchup, especially if it's played in Denver.
If the Ravens do play in Baltimore, it's a completely different game. Joe Flacco is excellent at home and bad on the road. Entering Baltimore's game vs. Pittsburgh in Week 13, Flacco had completed 66.5 percent of his passes with 1612 yards, 10 touchdowns, three interceptions and 108.3 quarterback rating at home.
On the road, Flacco completes just 55.3 percent of his passes for 1,238 yards, four touchdowns, four interceptions for a 70.2 quarterback rating. Flacco is historically a "hot-and-cold" quarterback.
So it makes all of the difference in the world whether this game is played in either Denver or Baltimore.
The Patriots stand at 10-3 and are currently slotted as the No. 2 seed.
With their more than convincing victory over Houston on Monday night, the Patriots are the alpha team in not only the AFC, but the league itself. New England's three losses have come by a total of four points, and it is currently riding a seven-game winning streak.
The one offense that is better than Denver? None other than Patriots. New England is scoring 36.3 points per game—seven points more a game than the second-place Broncos.
Yes, the Patriots are that good.
The defense is better than the 2011 version as it ranks 11th in points allowed per game. To make matters worse for opposing teams? The defense ranks second in the league in turnovers forced.
The Patriots have committed the least amount of the turnovers in the league with just 10, aided by Tom Brady's penchant for taking care of the ball. Brady has thrown just four interceptions.
Because of the balance on both offense and defense, the Patriots are first in the league in giveaway/takeaway differential with a plus-24 margin.
It's not a favorable matchup for the Broncos. By any means.
For as good as Denver is as a football team, it is not nearly as balanced as the Patriots. The Broncos rank 19th in takeaway/giveaway differential with a minus-2 margin. They are 19th in giveaways and 14th in takeaways.
To make matters worse, Brady himself—like Manning—is having an MVP-type season himself. Brady tops the league in passer rating, and his interception percentage is the lowest in the league.
The Patriots have also defeated the Broncos earlier this year, beating them 31-21 in New England in Week 5.
This would be a great game to watch, but it could also be excruciating to watch. The Patriots have a better offense, a better running game, just as good of a quarterback and are a lot better at taking care of the football and forcing turnovers on defense.
Would this game be a shootout?
Would the score end in favor of the Broncos?
The Texans are still the conference's top seed at 11-2 and control their own destiny despite the blowout loss to the Patriots on Monday night.
The Texans and Broncos played earlier this season with Houston defeating the Broncos in Denver 31-25. Houston led Denver by as many as 20 points before the Broncos made a late rally before coming up short.
The game versus Houston was a long time ago. The Broncos have evolved and gotten better as a team. Manning has played better, the offense has played better and the defense has slowly improved.
Despite Houston's two blowout losses to elite teams such as the Packers and the Patriots, it is still a dangerous matchup for the Broncos.
Houston will likely be ahead of the Broncos in the seeding bracket as it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker and are already one game better in the standings.
Brady embarrassed the Texans defense last night, but it is still a dangerous threat. They are perhaps the most balanced team in the league, ranking fourth in points scored and sixth in points allowed.
They also play in a 3-4 alignment, making things difficult for a pocket passer such as Manning. In Denver's first meeting with Houston, it wasn't until the fourth quarter that Manning was able to get into a true rhythm. After three quarters, the Broncos had scored just 11 points on a safety and three field goals.
Could the Broncos very well beat Houston, especially considering how weak it looked last night versus an elite team?
Could they also very well lose for a second time this season to the Texans?
It's a tough matchup for the Broncos, but a very winnable one.
As long as they keep Manning off the ground.