The scariest part about the 2015-2016 NFL playoff picture is that the scenario that sees the Denver Broncos missing the playoffs isn't all that unlikely.
The Broncos would miss the playoffs if they only win one of their remaining games and the Chiefs, Steelers and Jets each win out. Current trends would need to be bucked to avoid that scenario; the Broncos have lost their last two games, and each of those teams are on big winning streaks (eight-game, three-game, and four-game respectively). So it makes sense that Denver is now only 58% favorites to win the AFC West when they were well over 95% favorites two weeks ago.
At this point, Denver's two-game losing streak should not be evoking confidence. Even if the Broncos beat the 11-3 Bengals, they would not be guaranteed a playoff spot. They could go 1-1, finish 11-5, and still miss the postseason if the Chiefs, Jets and Steelers win out. The Broncos need to either go 2-0, or they need help to make the playoffs.
This rooting guide makes clinching a playoff spot a higher priority than the outside shot of Denver earning the No. 1 seed.
AFC Playoff Standings
(Overall record, AFC record, remaining schedule)
1. New England Patriots (12-2, 9-1, at NYJ, at MIA)
2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-3, 8-2, at DEN, vs. BAL)
3. Denver Broncos (10-4, 6-4, vs. CIN, vs. SD)
4. Houston Texans (7-7, 5-5, at TEN, vs. JAC)
5. Kansas City Chiefs (9-5, 8-2, vs. CLE, vs. OAK)
6. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5, 6-4, at BAL, at CLE)
In the hunt
7. New York Jets (9-5, 6-4, vs. NE, at BUF)
10. Indianapolis Colts (6-8, 4-6, at MIA, vs. TEN)
11. Jacksonville Jaguars (5-9, 5-6, at NO, at HOU)
Note: The current 8th and 9th seeds, the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills, have each been eliminated from playoff contention. The Colts and Jaguars have not. Thanks AFC South!
Go Broncos! vs. Bengals
Always root for Denver. If you've stumbled upon this blog post from elsewhere on the Internets, know that we're hardcore Broncos fans, and this rooting guide is meant for Broncos fans. Which means it's the only rooting guide that matters. Go Broncos!
Go Patriots! vs. Jets
Wait, what? Stay with me here.
You may note there's still an outside shot the Broncos could win the No. 1 seed, should the Patriots lose both of their remaining game and the Broncos win out. This has such low probability, though, based on New England's soft schedule, that it makes sense to just go the other way and cheer for the Jets to lose. With one more Broncos win and a Jets loss, Denver would be guaranteed a playoff spot.
But if you feel 100% confident that the Broncos can win both of their remaining games, and/or it makes you sick to root for the Patriots, sure, go ahead and root for New York. It feels right, even though odds and current trends suggest it might not be the wisest route. Just know that you're risking a lot on confidence in a team (the Broncos) that is on a two-game losing streak.
Go Browns! at Chiefs
Wouldn't it be sweet if the Chiefs, you know, lost a game? They haven't done that since early October. A Chiefs loss and a Broncos win this season would net Denver its fifth straight AFC West. Plus, a Chiefs loss could knock KC out of the playoffs entirely, depending on how Weeks 16 and 17 go.
Go Ravens! vs. Steelers
Two weeks ago, I wrote the exact opposite of this conclusion. I said that it made sense to root for the Steelers over the Bengals, because rooting for a situation where the Broncos earn a playoff spot was low-risk, low-reward, while our focus was on earning the No. 1 seed. After Denver's two-game losing streak, let's just say the risk has increased significantly and the reward looks all the more rewarding. Root against the Steelers the rest of the way in hopes that the Broncos make the playoffs and the Steelers don't; unless, like half the Broncos team, you really want to see Cody Wallace again this season.
The rest of Week 16
The rest of this rooting guide is based on improving Denver's tiebreaker scenarios based on strength of schedule, strength of victory, and more. These could end up playing a role in a number of situations that would see the Broncos in a seeding situation with division winners or Wild Card teams. Broncos fans' favored teams in bold.
Redskins at Eagles
Panthers at Falcons
Cowboys at Bills
49ers at Lions
Colts at Dolphins
Bears at Bucs
Texans at Titans
(root for Texans or not depending on if you'd rather see Indy or Houston in the playoffs)
Jaguars at Saints
Packers at Cardinals
Rams at Seahawks
Giants at Vikings