The Denver Broncos have positioned themselves to earn the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs, but they have some work to do.
They've done their job in the division, beating the previously 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs twice in three weeks.
A devastating overtime loss to the New England Patriots that came after a 24-0 halftime lead occurred between those victories over the Chiefs, but at 10-2, Peyton Manning's team is where it wants to be with a month left in the season.
Theoretically, the ultimate regular-season goal for every NFL team is to earn the top spot in its respective conference to guarantee it doesn't have to leave home for the playoffs and needs only two postseason wins to reach the Super Bowl.
The Broncos were the AFC's No. 1 seed a season ago—let's look at how they can clinch it again this year.
Earliest the Broncos Can Clinch (as of Right Now)
Both the 9-3 New England Patriots and 8-4 Indianapolis Colts—teams residing in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the AFC playoff standings—hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos. Therefore, Denver must finish with a better overall record than each team to obtain the top seed.
If the Broncos win their next two games—at home against the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers—and the Patriots lose their next two games—at home against the Cleveland Browns and on the road against the Miami Dolphins—while the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals lose one of their next two, Denver will be the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
The Broncos would have a record of 12-2, and the Patriots, Colts and Bengals would have records of 9-5.
At that point, with only two games remaining, none of the division winners would be able to catch Denver in the overall win-loss column.
Andy Reid's team won't be knocked out of the AFC West title race until it's mathematically impossible to overtake the Broncos in the win-loss column.
Assuming the favorites win over the next two weeks, this is what the top of the AFC postseason bracket will look like:
- Denver Broncos: 12-2
- New England Patriots 11-3
- Cincinnati Bengals 10-4
- Indianapolis Colts 9-5
Not much would change in this scenario for the Broncos, but it would "eliminate" the Colts from No. 1-seed contention.
At 10-4 with an 8-3 conference record (9-3 being the best they could finish in the AFC), the Bengals would technically still be "alive" for the No. 1 seed, but they would need the Broncos (who can finish with a 10-2 AFC record) to lose at least of one their final two outings—at the Houston Texans or at the Oakland Raiders—to have a chance at the top spot.
If the Broncos and Bengals finished with the same 12-4 overall record and 9-3 conference record, the common games tiebreaker would come into play.
It's too early to determine how each team would finish in that regard, but one thing is obvious—the No. 4-seeded Bengals, unsurprisingly, would need plenty of help, mainly good teams losing to weaker opponents—to catapult into the No. 1 spot in the AFC playoffs.
Keeping It Simple
With four games left in the regular season and one team within a game and a pair of teams within two games of the Broncos, there are a countless number of possibilities and scenarios that could play out down the stretch.
At this point, going through the potential sequence of events for each team and deciding how they would affect the other three contending teams would be mind-melting and would have a shelf life of less than a week.
All we know right now is that the Broncos absolutely cannot coast through the next two games, and because of the head-to-head tiebreaker they'd lose to the Patriots, they might not be able to capture the No. 1 seed until Week 17.
On-Field Adjustments and Improvements Needed?
Enough of the "what if" storylines. In order for the Broncos to finish in the No. 1 spot in the AFC playoffs, do they need to tighten a few aspects of their overall game during the final four regular-season games?
While, in theory, there's always room for improvement, here's a look at what Denver's offense has accomplished over the past three games compared to what the high-powered Saints offense has done all season (before Week 13's game against the Seattle Seahawks):
Similar numbers across the board.
If you're producing comparably with the Saints, it's hard to complain.
On defense, the Broncos have been good enough of late.
Let's compare what they've done during their most recent three-game stretch to the Cincinnati Bengals' entire season:
|Offensive Comparison (Broncos' Last Three vs. Saints' Season)|
|Yards Per Game||Yards Per Play||Yards Per Pass Attempt||Yards Per Carry||Points Per Game|
|Pro Football Reference|
While the Bengals have been decidedly better in every category, with a potent offense, the Broncos have some defensive leeway.
The most glaring fix Denver needs to make involves its run defense.
Facing Jamaal Charles, the active all-time leader (among running backs) in yards-per-carry average, twice in three weeks didn't make things easy for the Broncos run-stopping unit, but Denver can't go into the playoffs allowing more than five yards per carry.
Its season average sits at a much more respectable 3.9, but if the opposition believes it can run the ball effectively against the Broncos, it'll do so to keep Manning off the field.
With a one-game lead in the conference, the Broncos can't grumble about where they're positioned in the playoff-seeding chase.
There are a countless number of scenarios that could play out right now, but if they win their next two games against lesser opponents at home, the amount of scenarios in which other teams can overtake the Denver Broncos for the AFC's top spot will dramatically dwindle.