When breaking down the road to the Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos, I immediately recognized the path could be filled with two of the three teams that beat them in the regular season.
The Broncos have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and that will come in handy, as the team only lost one game at home in 2013. As the top seed in the AFC, the Broncos are considered the favorite to make it to the Super Bowl.
Each matchup the Broncos could face will have a fair share of challenges. The Broncos should be favored in any contest they’ll face before the Super Bowl, especially at home.
The NFL playoffs begin on Saturday, but the Broncos are merely going to be spectators. As the AFC’s top seed, the Broncos are going to rest and get ready during the bye week.
They will be prepared for any team they must face the next week. In fact, that opponent may be quite familiar. Any combination possible for their first game has the Broncos facing someone they’ve taken on earlier this season.
While the opponent might not yet be known, the Broncos know they are just two wins away from making the trip to New Jersey for the Super Bowl.
Two games to reach their destiny. Five possible opponents are standing in the way. It is time to see how the Broncos match up against each of the other AFC playoff teams.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand. Records and statistical information are provided via email from the Denver Broncos.
Team Record: 9-7
Playoff Seed: 6
Path to Match Up With Denver: Beat the Bengals in the Wild Card Round
We could get a third matchup between the Chargers and the Broncos this season. The last two times these teams faced each other, the game script was similar but the outcome was different.
The Chargers will once again try to control the time of possession when facing the Broncos. They’ll essentially play “defense” with a grinding offense that can sustain drives and take time off the clock. This means running back Ryan Mathews will get a huge workload as the Chargers' bell cow between the tackles.
Philip Rivers will always be a thorn in the side of the Broncos. The pass rush will have to harass him if these two teams meet again. That may prove to be difficult, as the Chargers like to use short timing routes to chip away downfield.
Again, the Chargers' mantra against the Broncos is “eat the clock.” This mindset bleeds over into the passing game as well. They will take some deep shots, but primarily it will be long handoffs through short passes.
In two games against the Chargers, Denver only had the ball around 40 minutes. The Chargers had the ball for around 80 minutes combined in those two contests. With half the time to work with, each possession becomes hyper-critical for the Broncos.
The Chargers defense likes to play physical with the Broncos receivers on the outside. The receivers will have to fight through this in order to make plays downfield. Having both Julius Thomas and Wes Welker available will help the Broncos move the ball on underneath or seam routes.
Team Record: 11-5
Playoff Seed: 5
Path to Match Up With Denver: Beat the Colts in the Wild Card Round + Bengals win vs. Chargers.
Like the Chargers, this would be the third time the Chiefs faced the Broncos this season if they meet in the playoffs. The game script was the same both times against the Chiefs, as both were big Broncos victories.
Jamaal Charles is the most dangerous weapon for the Chiefs. The Broncos would focus on slowing him down first and foremost. Doing that puts pressure on the Chiefs passing game. Charles had fewer than 100 yards rushing against the Broncos in each game against Denver this year.
Alex Smith is an average starting quarterback. Chiefs fans are thrilled with his performance this year, but that’s because they had Matt Cassel last season. Smith loves to check down the football, and he’s not much of a threat to attack vertically. Not only is Smith hesitant to make these types of throws, but the Chiefs receivers are not an incredibly talented bunch either.
The Chiefs know how to get after the quarterback. They finished the 2013 season with 47 sacks. However, they failed to sack Peyton Manning in the two games they faced each other this season. They’ll try to get after Manning, but the Broncos have proven that attempt should be futile.
The Broncos should be able to hammer them on the ground with both Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball. This sets up play-action passing for Manning, and also helps protect him from any pass rush.
Team Record: 11-5
Playoff Seed: 4
Path to Match Up With Denver: Beat the Chiefs in the Wild Card Round + Bengals win vs. the Chargers.
Again, the Broncos would get another familiar opponent if the Colts find their way to the Mile High City in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Broncos' first loss of the season came in Week 7 against the Colts. However, that game was in Indianapolis, as Peyton Manning traveled back to the city he started his NFL career in.
Andrew Luck has taken over for Manning in Indianapolis, and he’s one of the best young quarterbacks in the league today. He’s known for a tough mind, accuracy and fourth-quarter comebacks. The Broncos want to build a large lead against a quarterback like this.
The Colts' ground game isn’t that strong, but the Broncos would have to contend with an emerging Donald Brown. The 2010 first-round pick can make plays as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. Trent Richardson provides a battering ram as the team’s backup running back.
The Broncos offense would have to once again face physical coverage. Primarily, it would come from Darius Butler as he battles Wes Welker on underneath routes. Eric Decker could once again prove to be the best option here.
Protecting Manning would be incredibly critical in this contest. The last time these two teams played, Robert Mathis was able to easily handle left tackle Chris Clark. Manning was under duress most of the game, and the Colts were able to sack him four times.
The Broncos would have to also be mindful of defenders stripping away the ball. The game between these two earlier this year saw both Trindon Holliday and Ronnie Hillman lose the handle on the rock.
Team Record: 11-5
Playoff Seed: 3
Path to Match Up With Denver: Beat the Chargers in the Wild Card Round, then defeat the Patriots in the divisional round.
This is the only matchup in which the Broncos would be facing an unfamiliar opponent. The Bengals won the AFC North, and they would only be able to face the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
Andy Dalton is a streaky quarterback. He’s tossed more touchdowns in his first three seasons than every other quarterback in NFL history not named Dan Marino or Peyton Manning. However, Dalton is better at home than he is on the road. Traveling to Denver is a distinct disadvantage for this young quarterback.
A.J. Green would be the focus of the Broncos defense. The superstar wide receiver is difficult to stop no matter which coverage is tried. He can fly down the field to attack the defense vertically, and he is also a quality target in the red zone.
The Bengals defense is stout, but it has lost a few key defenders to injury this year. This game would be a much better matchup if the Bengals still had defensive tackle Geno Atkins or cornerback Leon Hall. Both players are done for the season, and their backups are not of the same caliber.
Denver would be able to attack this team through the air and on the ground. We could see both the passing attack and ground game have big success against the Bengals. This is why the matchup between Denver and Cincinnati might be the least intriguing of the options.
Team Record: 12-4
Playoff Seed: 2
Path To Matchup With Denver: AFC Championship Game
This would be the big one. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would battle each other for the 15th time in an epic contest with explosive results.
The two teams faced each other earlier this year, with the Patriots coming out on top in Week 12. The final score was 34-31, and the game went into overtime.
Tom Brady would (of course) be the focus here. He’s not working with elite weapons like Rob Gronkowski, but Brady is still one of the most dangerous players in the NFL. The team would use short routes to guys like Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola to move the chains. It would also use rookie Aaron Dobson to stretch the field vertically.
Mostly, the Patriots would use their running backs to attack Denver. Shane Vereen is a dangerous weapon as both a runner and receiver out of the backfield. Matching him up with a Broncos linebacker in coverage would be a recipe for success.
The Patriots could also use both Stevan Ridley and LeGarrette Blount to hammer the Broncos defense up the middle. They may use an uptempo offense to keep the defense on its heels.
This is the game most want to see, and it could be a better game than any matchup the NFC could provide (for either team) in the Super Bowl.