Though the road to a championship will certainly be tougher now that the New England Patriots officially have home-field advantage, it was a long shot that the Broncos were going to get that luxury even before this loss.
However, the concern with the Broncos' chances in the playoffs may not necessarily be due to the fact that they don't have home-field advantage but more because of the recent play of the team—in particular the quarterback.
Peyton Manning just doesn't seem to be the player that he was even one year ago, when he threw 55 touchdown passes and won the league MVP award.
His ability to make decisions has not been on par with the cerebral quarterback who has been able to dissect defenses before the snap since he entered the league.
John Fox: "It wasn't all horrible. The sky is not falling. We're not getting rid of our quarterback. He's fine." #Broncos— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) December 23, 2014
Manning threw four interceptions against the Bengals, and though safety Reggie Nelson made an excellent play on one of them, the other three throws were cringeworthy.
With all that being said, this is a team that can still win the Super Bowl. Here's how it can do it.
Getting Healthy at Key Positions
The Broncos had good fortune in the first half of the year on the injury front, but they've been hit hard in that area in recent weeks.
Marshall's absence was very evident against the Bengals. Without their leading tackler on the field, the Broncos watched the Bengals amass more than 200 yards rushing in the game.
Without a good cover linebacker like Trevathan on the field, the Bengals were able to take advantage of Giovani Bernard getting matched up against Steven Johnson. Bernard took the short pass in for a 22-yard touchdown after beating Johnson easily.
The Broncos might be able to mask the injury of one of their linebackers, but they can't overcome them both not being on the field.
This team will not win a Super Bowl with guys like Johnson and Todd Davis on the field.
The same thing goes for the running back position. Though the Broncos have established a strong ground attack behind C.J. Anderson, they still need a better rotation.
Montee Ball is out of the season, but Ronnie Hillman needs to get back on the field as soon as possible.
Though he's been dealing with a nagging foot injury, Hillman has missed the team's last six games.
RB Ronnie Hillman inactive. On track to be available in final game Sunday vs. Raiders.— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) December 22, 2014
Anderson has had a very good season, but he can't do it alone. The Broncos need Hillman back to add a spark to the running game.
The Broncos have other players who are fighting through injuries, but Hillman and Marshall are key to a Super Bowl run.
Sticking with Six Offensive Lineman, Even on Passing Downs
The Broncos have had a lot of success by adding an additional offensive lineman to certain formations this season, whether it be Virgil Green or Paul Cornick. This is something they need to do on nearly every offensive down.
It's clear that it gives the team an advantage in the running game, but the Broncos need to stick with it when they throw the ball too.
It's becoming less and less of a secret that if you can get hits on Manning, he hurries throws and his accuracy starts to go down. He starts to play as if he's almost scared.
Against the Bengals, the offensive line could not keep Bengals defenders away from its quarterback. Louis Vasquez had a lot of problems against Carlos Dunlap.
That was a big reason why the Broncos were blown out in the Super Bowl against Seattle.
By keeping that extra offensive lineman on the field at all times, you have a strengthened running game as well as additional protection on the right side of the line, where Vasquez sits.
The Broncos would run the risk of taking a guy like Julius Thomas off the field on many plays, but he's been very ineffective since sustaining an ankle injury earlier this season.
Could a decision like this make the offense more predictable? Sure. But this is an offense that is predicated on timing. If Manning is under the kind of pressure that he was in Cincinnati, there will be no timing.
The team should have seen that when it made the decision to move three players on the offensive line to other positions in the middle of the season.
Developing a Different Mentality on the Road
The Broncos look like a completely different team when they're on the road. Though they still have a good chance of getting a first-round bye in the playoffs, a road playoff game is a strong possibility.
All four of the Broncos' losses have come on the road this season. Moreover, 11 of Manning's 15 interceptions have occurred away from the confines of Sports Authority Field.
Why do the Broncos allow themselves to get pushed around when they go to another team's stadium?
Seattle, New England, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Those are the four teams that have beaten the Broncos this season. Those four teams were all much more physical than the Broncos.
The Broncos need to find a way to match their opponent's intensity on the road. It's on the coaching staff to help develop that, though time is running out.
If the Broncos go into any stadium and get pushed around the way they did in those four losses, they will lose and be sent home with another disappointing playoff loss.
No, the sky isn't falling because the Broncos lost to the Bengals. But it should be the final wake-up call this team needs.
Manning still leads the NFL in touchdown passes with 39. The team should get back key contributors from the injured list, and it has players who are capable of being just as physical as anyone in the league.
In other words, the Broncos have the pieces. Now it's time to put them all together.