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With 5 games left, who will make the AFC playoffs?

Can the 6-6 Denver Broncos make the dance?

Denver Broncos v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

At 6-6, the Denver Broncos are currently in the midst of their best start to a season since 2016. As great as that may be after years of 0-4 starts and third string quarterbacks, they’re still at risk of missing the postseason for the sixth straight year. The last time Broncos Country wallowed through such a long stretch of irrelevance, Gerald Ford was in the White House.

Following a frustrating loss to the Chiefs, things are looking pretty dire for Denver’s playoff hopes. They’re currently 12th in the AFC playoff order. To get a better idea as to the Broncos’ chances at the postseason, I thought it time to compare their situations with the relevant competition, with “relevant” being the key word. Odds are the New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans make the dance, even if they fall off the top the conference. Let’s take a look at the other potential contenders in order of their seeding.

3. Baltimore Ravens

Remaining schedule

At Browns

Vs. Packers

At Bengals

Vs. Rams

Vs. Steelers

Marlon Humphrey’s season-ending pec injury raises questions about how many more crucial pieces the Ravens can afford to lose. Lamar Jackson’s offense hasn’t scored more than 20 points in a 34-31 overtime win over the Minnesota Vikings at the beginning of November. Since then, the former MVP has scored four touchdowns, thrown seven interceptions, and taken 20 sacks. Over the same stretch, the defense ranks 22nd in Estimated Points Added (EPA) behind teams like the Detroit Lions and Houston Texans.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

Remaining schedule

Vs. Raiders

At Chargers

Vs. Steelers

At Bengals

At Broncos

The posterchild for this weird 2021 is easily the Chiefs, who opened the year with a historically bad defense before they grew into a top three unit across the last half of the season. If it wasn’t for New England, all the talk would be about how Andy Reid has his team prepared to surge at the right time. What makes Kansas City terrifying is they’re still not clicking on all cylinders, as Broncos fans saw in last week’s 22-9 loss. Despite Patrick Mahomes’ struggles and the untimely mistakes from the supporting cast, KC ranks 6th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. The special teams is second.

5. Los Angeles Chargers

Remaining schedule

Vs. Giants

Vs. Chiefs

At Texans

Vs. Broncos

At Raiders

The Bolts’ sloppy victory over the Bengals has them in a strong position to make the dance. They have the weakest remaining schedule among the AFC contenders and their early wins over the Chiefs and Raiders have them well positioned to steal the West if Kansas City stumbles. The issues on the offensive line and across the defense leaves them vulnerable against other top offenses, but with Brandon Staley’s scheme, they could make noise if Justin Herbert gets hot at the right time.

6. Cincinnati Bengals

Remaining schedule

Vs. 49ers

At Broncos

Vs. Ravens

Vs. Chiefs

At Browns

The Bengals are the team who would most prefer the season ended today. They had the easiest 12 game stretch in the league to open the season, which buoyed an overperforming pass defense and helped hide deficiencies along the offensive line. On paper they look like a poor foil for the Chiefs, but could still find a way to sneak in because of favorable matchups against the rest of the contenders on their remaining slate.

7. Buffalo Bills

Remaining schedule

At Buccaneers

Vs. Panthers

At Patriots

Vs. Falcons

Vs. Jets

Buffalo has been a roller coaster ride since their 4-1 start to the season, alternating wins and losses every single week. Although losing to Bill Belichick in a game where Mac Jones threw three passes all but slams the door shut on the AFC East, they have a relatively easy remaining slate. With Josh Allen under center, a strong coaching staff, and a loaded roster, there’s no excuse for missing the dance.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers

Remaining schedule

At Vikings

Vs. Titans

At Chiefs

Vs. Browns

At Ravens

Losing to the Steelers in October currently looks like it could come back to haunt the Broncos, and it’s a true testament to Mike Tomlin, T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, and the offensive coaching staff that Ben Roethlisberger has a chance to cap off his Steelers career with a postseason berth. The 39-year-old is clearly a shell of his former self. He lacks the arm to drive the ball into tight windows or reliably hit receivers in stride downfield and no longer has the mobility to escape a pass rush with any consistency.

9. Indianapolis Colts

Remaining schedule

Vs. Patriots

At Cardinals

Vs. Raiders

At Jaguars

Buffalo’s alter ego. Injuries to Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson compounded with Eric Fisher’s recovery from a 2020 torn Achilles helped ensure Indy got off to a 1-4 start. Since then Indy’s gone on a 5-2 tear with only Tom Brady and overtime in the Tennessee preventing a seven-game win streak. A very late bye gives them a chance, but tough matchups against the Pats and Cards could spell doom for their postseason hopes.

10. Las Vegas Raiders

Remaining schedule

At Chiefs

At Browns

Vs. Broncos

At Colts

Vs. Chargers

Vegas and Denver find themselves in similar situations with five games to go. Both teams face an uncertain future where two losses probably sends them into an early offseason. One could even argue the Raiders’ early wins over the Broncos, Steelers, and Ravens give them favorable tiebreakers should the decision come down to mutual opponents between the two. However, it probably won’t considering the silver and black have the toughest remaining slate in the AFC and Carr is trending back towards the painfully conservative style of play that’s defined his career since Jon Gruden resigned.

11. Cleveland Browns

Remaining schedule

Vs. Ravens

Vs. Raiders

At Packers

At Steelers

Vs. Bengals

Like the Steelers and Ravens, the Browns are an AFC North outfit with the tiebreaker advantage over Denver, which could ultimately prove valuable. They’ve hung around .500 since the middle of October and may sneak up on divisional foes with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah back in the lineup. Kevin Stefanski will need to find a way to do more on offense, as Baker Mayfield has been the 18th best quarterback by EPA since his return from injury in week eight, falling behind passers such as Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts, and Teddy Bridgewater. They’ll host Baltimore following the bye and still have an outside chance at winning their division.

12. Denver Broncos

Remaining schedule

Vs. Lions

Vs. Bengals

At Raiders

At Chargers

Vs. Chiefs

As of today, both FO’s playoff odds report and FiveThirtyEight’s playoff predictor give Denver a 17% chance at making the playoffs. If the Broncos do fail to make the postseason this year, it will be the longest drought since the 1970s and a disappointing finish to John Elway’s tenure in the front office. The grim reality is Denver’s loss to the Kansas City Chiefs means the Broncos probably have to win out to avoid such dubious history. It’s a tall task. The last time Denver won five games in a row, the No Fly Zone was carrying Peyton Manning to and through Super Bowl 50.