The Denver Broncos have a week off to relax.
After four consecutive weeks of tough games versus the Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, Indianapolis Colts and the Washington Redskins, the Broncos finally have the luxury of resting and getting healthier.
Well, that is until Week 10 anyway, when the Broncos visit the San Diego Chargers.
This begins the toughest four-game stretch the Broncos will endure this season. Beginning with the aforementioned San Diego matchup, the Broncos come back home to face the Kansas City Chiefs (currently 8-0) in Week 11 before traveling to Foxborough to play the New England Patriots in Week 12. Denver will then finish off the stretch when it travels to Arrowhead Stadium to play the Chiefs in Week 13.
All three teams have winning records—their combined records are 18-5, a .782 winning percentage.
The Broncos are in good shape right now. At 7-1, they possess the second-best record in the NFL. The problem is—due to the fact that the only team in the NFL who has a better record just so happens to be in the same division (the Chiefs)—if the season ended today, the Broncos would be a wild-card team.
Due to the competitive nature of the NFL in the playoffs, a team—no matter how powerful it is or how well it has been playing—would prefer to lock up home-field advantage in the playoffs, rather than likely having to go on the road for three consecutive games just to get to the Super Bowl.
This is where the Broncos have their chance at grabbing control of their own destiny. With two games versus the rival Chiefs and two other games against potential AFC playoff teams, the Broncos will have every opportunity to grab the No. 1 seed in the conference.
The question is, just how pivotal is this four-game stretch? We know the stretch is important. But how important is it?
Do the Broncos need to go 4-0 in order to consider this stretch a "successful" one? Is it OK if they go 3-1, as long as they defeat the Chiefs both times?
Just How Important Is This Stretch?
To put into perspective just how difficult the next four games are, consider this: All three teams the Broncos face during this stretch would contend for the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Chiefs would be the top seed, with the 6-2 Patriots getting the second seed. The Chargers (4-3) would be the last AFC team to qualify for the playoffs.
We know how tough the stretch is. But how many of these four games do the Broncos need to win in order to be satisfied?
Three games are within the division. All four games are within the conference. Every game is pivotal. It's not as if the Broncos are facing an NFC East team in a game that will have no bearing, in case teams at season's end are deadlocked record-wise, on tiebreaking procedures within the conference.
If the Broncos are to go 2-0 versus the Chiefs, obviously they'll hold the tiebreaker over Kansas City. But what happens if the Broncos split with the Chiefs?
|NFL Tie-Breaking Procedures Within Division|
|2.||Record in Games Played Within the Divison|
|3.||Record in Common Games|
|4.||Record in Games Played Within the Conference|
The NFL's tiebreaking procedures within the division are ranked this way:
2. Best win-loss-tie percentage in games played within the division
3. Best win-loss-tie percentage in common games
4. Best win-loss-tie percentage in games played within the conference.
The even record in head-to-head is a plausible scenario.
So it then comes down to games played within the division. Both the Chiefs and Broncos are undefeated in division play, but each team has played only one game within the AFC West. Over the last eight weeks of the season, the Broncos and Chiefs each will play divisional rivals five times over the next two months.
This is where the game versus the Chargers becomes even more important.
The Broncos' Week 10 matchup at San Diego could end up being the difference between the Broncos being a top-seeded team or being a wild-card team.
Many have overlooked the Broncos' first game off of their bye versus the Chargers due to the upcoming marquee game between the currently undefeated Chiefs and the Broncos at Mile High in Week 11. The battle between the AFC's current top two teams is such a big deal, that it was recently flexed to Sunday Night Football. It will now be seen by a national audience.
Even sportswriters for The Denver Post are overlooking the Chargers.
A month ago when the Broncos were still undefeated, I explored the chances of the Chargers upsetting Denver: "Many people are picking Kansas City to be Denver's toughest matchup. That won't be the case. The Broncos' toughest competition within the division will be the Chargers."
I still believe that to be the case.
Yes, the Chiefs may have a dominating defense. They may have a proven head coach who has consistently led winning teams. Their quarterback is an excellent game manager who has aided the Chiefs in leading the league with a plus-12 turnover margin.
But the Chargers have an offense that can match the Broncos in a single game. They have the advantage of being an overlooked team, playing a Broncos squad likely be thinking of its Week 11 game versus the likely-to-be undefeated Chiefs. Moreover, San Diego has a quarterback in Philip Rivers who has had a penchant for defeating the Broncos in big games.
Rivers is having an astounding 2013 campaign. He ranks second in the NFL in passer rating (111.1) to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, and he ranks first in the league in completion percentage (73.9). If that completion percentage number holds for the rest of the season, it would be an NFL record.
And let's not forget the Broncos' Week 12 visit to New England. The Broncos have lost three consecutive games to the Patriots and haven't beaten New England in Foxborough since 2006.
How many games do the Broncos need to win in order to validate this as a successful stretch?
They need to go 4-0.
The Broncos are a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Denver needs to win a Super Bowl this year, or 2013 will be considered a failed season.
Is that harsh? Sure. But for a team that lost in its first playoff game in 2012, for a team that has the talent level that the Broncos have and for a team that has a 37-year-old quarterback in the twilight of his career, the team from the Mile High City is in a win-now mode.
Denver won't be satisfied with a playoff berth. It won't be satisfied with a division title. No offense to Kansas City, but if the Chiefs are to accomplish both—even if they lose their first playoff game—the fans from Arrowhead will consider 2013 to be a successful season, considering the team was an NFL worst 2-14 last year.
If the Broncos want to ensure the easiest path to winning the Super Bowl, and if they are to prove they are truly championship bound, there won't be a better time than to prove it during this four-game stretch.
In order for the four-game stretch to be considered "successful," the Broncos will need to go undefeated against their AFC counterparts.
If the Broncos fail to do so, Denver will very likely have to go the route of the 1997 Broncos—win all four games away from home before bringing home the Lombardi Trophy.