Just how important was the win by Denver on Sunday in Atlanta? Perhaps more important than one might realize on first glance.
First, while Denver may appear to be an "on again / off again" team, they have managed to find themselves ranked fourth in the AFC. Only TENN, PITT, and the NYJ's rank ahead of Denver in the conference.
Still not impressed? How about this number: While TENN is clearly out in front in the AFC, PITT and NYJ are only one game ahead of Denver. That's right. Denver, somehow, is only a game out of second place in the AFC. That's a first round bye in the playoffs baby.
Now let's not get ahead of ourselves. Denver is a banged up team, and not terribly consistent. On the other hand, there's a lot of positives, and I want to share them with you.
First, let's be honest. Denver doesn't have a Superbowl caliber team yet. Could Denver fire up the rest of the season and get it done? It's possible, but not likely. However, the road to the playoffs and glory is not as impossible as it once looked. A big part of the reason is that while Denver doesn't look so hot, neither does the rest of the League.
Denver ranks fourth in the AFC. If Denver was in the NFC, they would have a better record than all but 3 teams. The previously dominating teams like NE and INDY have been grounded this year, and the League (and the conference) are up for grabs.
Before the season started, most of us would have penciled in ATL as an easy win. ATL has played with a lot of heart, and until meeting Denver, was undefeated at home. But despite the total attrition of the RB position, Denver cobbled together a former Bronco (who was selling cellphones in the Aurora Mall) and a rookie named Larsen (who played offense, defense, and STs, the first time a rookie has started on three units for a team since the AFL merger). More importantly, they scrapped the spread offense and went back to running the ball and executing short, West Coast style passes.
If Denver continues to run the ball and to allow Cutler to make less throws (which makes the receivers' job easier), Denver can finish out this season pretty strong. Denver will also get some players back (Champ Bailey) and should improve as the season goes on.
Denver has a two game lead over SD. Denver plays:
- OAK at home (should be a win) while SD plays IND at home (tricky).
- at the NYJ's (tricky) while SD plays ATL at home (tricky)
- KC at home (should be a win) while SD plays OAK at home (should be a win)
- DEN at CAR (doesn't look good), SD plays at KC (and no matter how bad KC is, they play well at home, especially late in the year).
- Denver has Buf at home (tricky, but at least it's a home game) while SD goes to TB (tricky).
- DEN at SD (The crown jewel game).
At worst, I see Denver and SD going through the next four games with the same record, leaving Denver with a 2 game lead when the final game of the season os played. At best, Denver could very well widen the lead when one considers the remaining schedule.
Based on the above points then, I think it is reasonable to say that Denver is not only in the driver's seat for a playoff spot, but all of a sudden finds themselves playing for a high seed. Let's look at the remaining schedule for the two teams we can likely catch (TENN isn't one of them).
- At TENN (OUCH!)
- Home against Denver (Denver controls it's own destiny)
- AT SF (should win)
- Home against BUF (tricky)
- AT SEA (should win)
- MIA at home (Could be tricky)
- Home against CIN (should win)
- At NE (tricky)
- Home against DAL (tricky)
- At BAL (could be tricky)
- At TENN (OUCH!)
- Home against CLE (should win).
Given Pittsburgh's difficult schedule down the stretch, Denver may very easily pass them for the third seed. The most important game left on the schedule may not be against SD after all! The most important game may very well be against the NYJs, which has implications for propelling Denver into the second seed in the AFC.
Chew on that one for awhile!