Of course they can, but will they?
That may seem like a strange question, since it is obvious that should the right sequence of events occur, the Broncos could find themselves in the #2, or even the #1 spot. Perhaps a better way of asking the question would be:
"How likely is it that Denver will be able to move up in the playoff seedings?"
That is a more complicated question since it hinges upon the play of three other teams, and not just what the Broncos do. Needless to say, for Denver to move up, they will most likely need to win all of their remaining games. The Broncos are currently seeded #4. Houston is ahead of them based on overall record (11-1 to 9-3). New England, Baltimore and Denver are all sporting 9-3 records. New England is ahead of Baltimore and Denver based on conference record (8-1 to Baltimore's 8-2 and Denver's 6-2). Baltimore is ahead of Denver based on conference record (8-2 to 6-2).
So what must the Broncos do to move up?
Let's take the teams in reverse order and start with the current #3 seed, Baltimore.
The Ravens face the Redskins in Washington next while the Broncos travel to Oakland. If both teams win, Baltimore will be 10-3 (8-2 in AFC). Denver will be 10-3 (7-2). They next line up for a face-to-face showdown. If Denver wins, the Broncos move ahead of the Ravens based on record: 11-3 to 10-4. If Denver matches Baltimore in the last two games, they would retain the #3 seed based on overall record. If the Broncos stumble and lose to either Cleveland or Kansas City, and the Ravens win out, Denver still takes the #3 seed based on head-to-head record.
Should the Broncos move ahead of the Ravens, the next task is to move ahead of the #2 seed New England. This will be more difficult. New England already owns the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their 31-21 win on October 7, so tying the Patriots' overall record accomplishes nothing in terms of moving up in the seedings. The only way to move ahead of New England would be for Denver to win out and go 13-3-0 while the Patriots drop one game to end the season at 12-4 (or a scenario in which New England drops one more game than the Broncos).
Supposing that Denver does manage to move past New England, moving past the Texans would be equally as difficult, if not more so than moving ahead of the Patriots. Not only are the Broncos two games behind Houston in overall record, the Texans own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their 31-25 victory over Denver on September 23. As with the Patriots, the Broncos need to post a better overall record than the Texans and that would mean Denver winning out and Houston losing three of their remaining four games. This is not particularly likely.
Denver could move into the first seed, if they ended up in a 3-way (or even 4-way) tie for best record in the AFC. The potential to post a better conference record is there -- especially if the Broncos can win their last four games. That would give them a conference record of 10-2. Again though, Houston would need to lose all three of their remaining games against AFC opponents -- which is not particularly likely. While New England would need to lose two of their three remaining AFC contests -- again, not a particularly likely scenario. I did not include Baltimore here because this scenario requires Denver to have beaten the Ravens which would make Baltimore's AFC record 9-3 at best to the Broncos' 10-2.
So . . . how do I think things could well play out?
First off, I'm drinking the orange kool-aid and predicting that Denver will win all four of their remaining games. The Broncos remaining schedule looks like this:
1)@Oakland - Denver blistered the Raiders 37-6 in their first meeting. The Broncos are 4-2 on the road while Oakland is 2-4 at home. Denver is 4-0 against the division while the Raiders are 1-2 in divisional play. The Broncos are 6-2 in the conference while Oakland is 3-6. Denver has won seven games in a row while the Raiders have dropped their last five. These are two teams going in opposite directions. Denver wins to improve to 10-3 with an AFC record of 7-2.
2)@Baltimore - as mentioned above, Denver needs to win this game. We cannot ignore the Ravens' 5-1 home record nor their 8-2 AFC record. While, since their Week 8 bye, the Ravens have gone 5-1 and have averaged 21.5 points per game for versus 13.5 points per game against, In their last three games, they have squeaked out a 13-10 win against Pittsburgh, lucked into a 16-13 overtime win by converting a 4th and 29 play against the imploding San Diego Chargers and lost 20-23 to Pittsburgh backup QB Charlie Batch. Three games where they've averaged 16.3 points for and 15.3 points against. Denver, on the other hand, since their Week 7 bye, has won six straight games, averaging 29.8 points per game for versus 17.7 points per game against. Add in tough wins against Kansas City and Tampa Bay and we find that the Broncos have learned how to win in adverse situations. Denver wins this game to improve to 11-3 with an AFC record of 8-2.
3)Cleveland - This may be an even tougher game for Denver than the Baltimore matchup. The Browns seem to play everyone tough. They may have lost eight games, but their average margin of loss has been just seven points. Five of their losses have been by seven points or less. Three of those losses have been by four points or less. Cleveland is averaging 19.0 points per game for versus 22.1 points per game against. It's a young team that has nothing to lose and everything to prove. It will be a "dawg" fight, but Denver should prevail if they keep their mental composure. Denver wins this game to improve to 12-3 with an AFC record of 9-2.
4)Kansas City - Just as with Cleveland, this could be a trap game. Kansas City has nothing to lose by pulling out all the stops while the Broncos do have to be concerned about keeping players healthy for the playoffs. By the same token, this game could very easily mean the difference between a first round bye in the playoffs and having to play in the Wild Card round, so I don't see Denver sitting anyone who's not injured. The first matchup was a tough-fought one in Kansas City and may have served as both something of a wake-up call and a confidence booster that the team can win even if the offense has an off-day (though, personally, I wouldn't want that to be the prevailing attitude). I believe that Denver wins this game to improve to 13-3 with an AFC record of 10-2.
Even with a 13-3-0 overall record and a conference record of 10-2, Denver will need some help to move up. Let's look first at the #1 seed: Houston.
1)@New England - This game could go either way. The Patriots will be playing at home (4-1 on the season) and vying for the #1 seed. Houston will be looking to keep the #1 spot and has a 6-0 road record. New England wins, causing Houston to slide slightly to 11-2 with an AFC record of 9-1.
2)Indianapolis - The Colts are the Cinderella, trendy pick right now. But they are 3-3 on the road and 2-1 in the division, compared to the Texans' 5-1 home record and 4-0 divisional record. Over the past two seasons (i.e. not facing Manning), Houston has won both of the home matchups and lost both of the ones on the road. I pretty much expect this pattern to continue. The Texans win this game and improve to 12-2 with an AFC record of 10-1.
3)Minnesota - The Vikings are currently 6-6-0 and the #10 seed in the NFC. They will also have had to face Chicago and gone on the road to face St. Louis before traveling to Houston to face the Texans. Minnesota will most likely put up a fight but ultimately go down in defeat. Houston wins this one to improve to 13-2 with an AFC record of 10-1.
4)@Indianapolis - The Colts are currently 8-4 with a home record of 5-1. As mentioned above, the post-Manning Colts have won both matchups that were played in Indianapolis. With a playoff spot on the line, it would not surprise me to see them do so again. Indianapolis pulls off the upset, causing the Texans to finish the season at 13-3 an AFC record of 10-2.
The #2 seed: New England.
1)Houston - see the comments above. New England wins this game to improve to 10-3 with an AFC record of 9-1.
2)San Francisco - The 49ers will be battling to clinch their division. New England will be battling to secure a first round bye. If there is any game that New England could lose, it will most likely be this one. I believe San Francisco will squeak out a win here, causing the Patriots a small hiccup to move to 10-4 with an AFC record of 9-1.
3)@Jacksonville - This is the Patriots only road game in their final four games. This won't be much of a contest. The Jaguars are 2-10, 1-5 at home and 2-6 in the AFC. They have already been eliminated from the playoffs. They simply will be outmatched by New England. The Patriots win this game to improve to 11-4 with an AFC record of 10-1.
4)Miami - The NFL football gods must love the Patriots. They get to close out against Miami -- a team that is currently 5-7, 2-4 on the road, 3-6 against the AFC, 1-3 against the AFC East, and have already lost to New England 23-16 on December 2. New England breezes to a win to finish at 12-4 with an AFC record of 11-1.
The #3 seed: Baltimore.
1)@Washington - Just as the NFL gods must love New England, they must hate the Ravens. The game against Washington is the first of four games against teams fighting for playoff positioning. Baltimore is 4-2 on the road and 1-1 against the NFC while the Redskins are just 3-3 at home and 0-2 against the AFC. By the same token, Washington is an unpredictable, quirky team which seems to lose when they should win and win when they should lose. Nevertheless, Baltimore ekes out a win to improve to 10-3 with an AFC record of 8-2.
2)Denver - see the comments above. Denver wins this game to drop the Ravens to 10-4 with an AFC record of 8-3.
3)New York Giants - The Giants are fighting for their playoff lives right now. They've put themselves in a position wherein they cannot afford to lose any more games and still make the playoffs, let alone win the NFC East. Baltimore will be stinging and reeling from losing to the Broncos and will be ripe for another upset. The Ravens lose this game to slide to 10-5 with an AFC record of 8-3.
4)@Cincinnati - The Bengals will be unfortunate enough to have to face a Ravens team that will be: (a)smarting from their first back-to-back losses of the 2012 season, and (b)needing a win to secure the division title. Baltimore will win this one to improve to 11-5 with an AFC record of 9-3.
Let's say it all plays out this way. Where does Denver stand when the dust settles? We would have the following:
|Houston||13-3-0||10-2-0||Houston takes the #1 seed based on head-to-head victory over Denver|
|Denver||13-3-0||10-2-0||Denver takes the #2 seed based on better overall record than New England and Baltimore|
|New England||12-4-0||11-1-0||New England takes the #3 seed based on better overall record than Baltimore|
|Baltimore||11-5-0||9-3-0||ends up as the #4 seed|
Is this pie in the sky dreaming? Could be.
Is it possible for Denver to secure the #1 seed? Yes. It is simply highly unlikely. Could they realistically end up with the #2 seed? Sure. They would simply need a fair amount of help from New England and Baltimore. Are they likely to end up with the #3 seed? That to me seems to be the most likely scenario given Denver and Baltimore's respective schedules. If the Broncos can defeat the Ravens in two weeks, I'd be fairly certain that Denver will end up with the #3 seed. Could they end up staying in the #4 spot. Absolutely. All they'd have to do is lose to Baltimore, or lose more than Baltimore does. To summarize:
#1 Seed: Unlikely
#2 Seed: Could be, with help
#3 Seed: Most probably
#4 Seed: Will happen if Denver isn't careful