With a win over the Chargers in Week 15, the Denver Broncos have clinched their fourth straight AFC West title. The Broncos have now won the division in all three seasons with Peyton Manning at the helm, and their streak dates back to the Tim Tebow season of 2011. The fourth straight division title marks a franchise record for the Broncos, who have never before won their division in four consecutive seasons.
With two games remaining in the season, the Broncos have clinched not only the division, but also a spot in the playoffs. It is a given that Denver will finish within the top four seeds of the AFC, but what are the factors that now influence where they will finish in the final standings?
First seed in the AFC
The only way that Denver can finish first in the AFC is if they win their remaining two games, and the New England Patriots lose one of their remaining games. Currently both teams hold the same records of 11-3, but New England holds the head-to-head tie-breaker of the Broncos, meaning that they currently hold the number one position. Denver has games remaining against the Bengals and Raiders, while the Pats play the Jets and Bills in their final two games. If the Broncos win in Cincinnati in Week 16, the Patriots will likely be forced to play all of their starters against the Bills in Week 17, in hopes of clinching that number one spot, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. That being said, it's possible that the Pats will need their starters to beat the Bills anyway, considering that Buffalo is a fringe playoff team at the moment, coming off of huge defensive performances against Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. The only remaining member of the big-three QB trifecta is Tom Brady, and the Bills have a lot to play for down the stretch.
Second seed in the AFC
The Broncos can clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win over the Bengals in Cincinnati next week. A win would guarantee a record of at least 12-4; and even if the Colts win out their schedule, the Broncos would hold a tiebreaker over them after winning the season-opener at home against Indianapolis. If the Broncos finish the season 1-1, the Colts cannot beat them in the final standings, even if they win both of their final games.
Third seed in the AFC
If the Broncos lose both remaining games and the Colts win both of their remaining scheduled games, the Broncos would finish with an 11-5 record, while the Colts would finish at 12-4. In this case, the Broncos would finish the season at third in the AFC, as long as the Patriots win at least one of their remaining two games. If the Patriots and Broncos each lose their remaining two games, the Colts would be able to clinch first in the AFC with wins against the Cowboys and Titans; this would result in a third place finish for Denver. The only way any team besides the Broncos, Patriots, or Colts can clinch the second seed in the AFC is if both the Broncos and Colts go 0-2 in the remaining two weeks, and the Bengals win out. In this scenario, the Patriots would finish first, the Bengals would finish second due to a better record than the Colts and a head-to-head tie-breaker over the Broncos, and the Broncos would finish third due to a head-to-head tie-breaker over Indianapolis.
Fourth seed in the AFC
The only way the Broncos can finish fourth in the AFC is if they lose their final two games (@CIN, vs. OAK), the Patriots lose their two remaining games (@NYJ, vs. BUF), the Colts win their two remaining games (@DAL, @TEN), and the Bengals win out their schedule (vs. DEN, @ PIT). This (highly unlikely) scenario would result in the Colts winning the AFC, the Bengals seeded second (11-4-1), the Patriots finishing third in the AFC standings (11-5), and the Broncos finishing fourth (11-5).
With two games remaining against inferior opponents, the Broncos should (in theory) win out their schedule. That being said, next week's Monday Night game in Cincinnati should not be overlooked, as the Bengals are fighting all three of their division rivals for the division title or an AFC Wild Card spot. The game is another cold, primetime game, with a lot of pressure, so the typical Manning storylines will be out in full force.
In summary, the Broncos need just one victory over their remaining two games to clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs, and they must win out to ensure a chance at the number one seed. There's no guarantee New England will win their remaining two games either; Tom Brady has historically struggled with Rex Ryan's blitz schemes, and the Bills are hanging tight against the NFL's best quarterbacks right now, following a win at home against the Packers. With two wins to end the season, there's still a chance the Broncos could clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and avoid that dreaded road game at Foxboro in January.