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Who should Broncos Country root for in the NFL playoffs?

7-10 means the orange and blue are sitting at home, but there’s a ton former Broncos chasing the Lombardi.

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A 7-10 season means the Denver Broncos are sitting at home this weekend and George Paton’s in the midst of working through his 10 candidates to replace Vic Fangio. It also means for the sixth straight year Broncos Country is free to enjoy the NFL playoffs without stressing over a bad call, untimely sack, or dropped interception ruining their favorite team’s season. If they so choose, fans can decide to enjoy each contest as a neutral party and take in the spectacle of good football after yet another disappointing season.

Some can’t enjoy games without a rooting interest though.

The following guide is my attempt at helping those who need a reason to root for someone in each game. I dove into each playoff team to find Broncos connections you may care about. This isn’t exhaustive, so if I do miss a connection please let me know in the comments below. Keep in mind this isn’t anything close to science and you’re completely free to root for whoever you like, so long as it ain’t the Raiders.

1) Green Bay Packers

First game: The lowest remaining NFC seed who survives Wildcard Weekend.

Connections to the Broncos

  • Billy Turner signed a four-year, $28 million deal with the Packers after serving as the Broncos best right tackle since Orlando Franklin in 2018.
  • Isaac Yiadom a cornerback Elway’s drafted in the third round in 2018 who wound up in Green Bay after a one-year stint with the New York Giants.
  • Nathaniel Hackett is a candidate for the Broncos vacant head coaching spot. The 42-year-old offensive coordinator has helped both Aaron Rodgers and Blake Bortles-led units finish with top 10 redzone offenses in the NFL.
  • Luke Getsy is also a candidate for Fangio’s old post. The quarterback coach has his hands on the Packers’ third down offense, which is one of the best in football.

The big question

Will a week off with coordinators interviewing for head coaching jobs disrupt what’s been a very strong season for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense?

2) Tampa Bay Buccaneers

First game: vs. Eagles

Connections to the Broncos

  • Shaq Barrett signed with the Broncos out of Colorado State and forced four fumbles during the Broncos Super Bowl season in 2015. He signed a one-year prove it deal with Tampa Bay after his rookie contract expired and has since become one of the best edge rushers in football.

The big question

Can the Bucs defense slow down the Eagles rushing attack?

Tampa Bay is dealing with a couple of injury questions on defense. Lavante Davis will be a game time decision after the the All Pro linebacker was designated to return off Injured Reserve. Shaq Barrett missed Thursday’s practice with a knee injury, but looks like he’ll play. Todd Bowles defense is at its best when quarterbacks are forced into drop back mode because he’s relentless with his pressure scheme, but the Eagles could put stress on Brady if they stay ahead of the sticks. The ageless quarterback won’t have Chris Godwin or Antonio Brown after the duo combined to catch 14 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown in Tampa’s 28-22 victory in October.

3) Dallas Cowboys

First game: vs. 49ers

Connections to the Broncos

  • Dan Quinn is one of the Broncos candidates for head coach. That the defensive coordinator was successful in rebuilding the Cowboys defense is no surprise: he coordinated the Legion of Boom in Super Bowl 48.
  • Kellen Moore is also interviewing to replace Vic Fangio. The 33-year-old coordinator is calling plays for the highest scoring offense in the NFL this season.

The big question

Can Quinn keep the lid on Shanny’s shot plays?

The Cowboys have the second best defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, but rank among the league’s bottom third against deep shots. Their a defense built around splash plays, such as Micah Parsons sacks or Trevon Diggs’ interceptions. While the 49ers will try and take the air out of the ball to limit their quarterback’s exposure the pass rush, Shanahan’s a maestro at play sequencing. If Garoppolo’s function, San Francisco is going to try and give him some chances downfield out of heavy personnel because the Cowboys will match it with single high coverage.

4) Los Angeles Rams

First game: vs. Cardinals

Connections to the Broncos

  • Warren Jackson spent his first training camp out of Colorado State with the Broncos and landed on the Rams practice squad after he was released.
  • Von Miller will go down as one of the best players in Broncos’ history. The MVP of Super Bowl 50 has the most sacks in franchise history. Traded to the Los Angeles Rams after week nine, he finished the regular season with the fourth most pressures of any Denver defender despite playing in just seven games.
  • Kevin O’Connell is a candidate for the Broncos’ head coaching job. Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator entered the league as a 3rd round quarterback by the Patriots and has worked for nine different teams in some capacity.

The big question

Can Matthew Stafford string four quarters together when it’s do-or-die?

The margin for error in this rubber match looks razor thin. Aaron Donald had three sacks in the last matchup, and Arizona still had an opportunity to tie the last game in the closing seconds before a holding call ruined a Kyler Murray scramble. The 30-23 victory marked the last time the Rams’ quarterback finished a game without throwing at least one pick. He has just as many touchdowns as interceptions over the last four weeks, including an overtime head-scratcher in the regular season finale. If he keeps the gaffes to a minimum this roster can beat anybody.

5) Arizona Cardinals

First game: at Rams

Connections to the Broncos

  • Matt Prater made 141 field goals for the Broncos over his seven seasons in Denver, including a 64-yarder that once tied the record for longest in NFL history.
  • Sean Kugler spent a season as the Broncos assistant offensive line coach before he left for Arizona and a promotion.
  • Zach Kerr is a member of Arizona’s practice squad after he spent two seasons as a part of the Broncos defensive line rotation from 2017-2018.
  • Vance Joseph spent two seasons as the Broncos’ head coach in 2017 and 2018, finishing his tenure with a 11-21 record. His Cardinals defense ranks sixth in the NFL by DVOA.
  • Max Garcia spent the first four years of his career playing guard for the Broncos after he was drafted in the fourth round out of Florida in 2015. After spending two seasons as a backup with the Cards, he became their starting center in week six.

The big question

Can the passing game do enough?

The Cards have struggled to replace DeAndre Hopkins since his injury in the last Rams game. Rather than move towards heavier sets, they’ve gone the other way. The offense is using 11 personnel (three receivers, a tight end, and a running back) on 69% of their snaps with Antoine Wesley at one of the boundary receiver spots. While the third year pro has three touchdowns over that span, Nuk’s absence leaves Murray without his favorite target when he has to make plays out of structure. It could prove could prove problematic considering the way Arizona’s struggled to protect him against Donald and the Rams’ front.

6) San Francisco 49ers

First game: at Cowboys

Connections to the Broncos

  • Kyle Shanahan’s always going to be connected to the Broncos because of his dad Mike. The 49ers head coach also interviewed to become the Broncos head coach after the 2017 season.
  • Bobby Turner is the 49ers running back coach after he held the same position with the Broncos from 1995 through 2009, a stretch when the Broncos had seven different thousand yard rushers.
  • Wes Welker caught 73 Peyton Manning passes for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns as part of the best offense in Broncos history. He now coaches the 49ers wide receivers.
  • River Cracraft is a 49ers receiver spent two years in Denver and hauled in a 44-yard pass from Case Keenum against the Los Angeles Chargers. He has six catches for 41-yards since.
  • Rich Scangarello is in his second stint as the 49ers quarterback coach after a year as the Broncos offensive coordinator and a season with the Philadelphia Eagles.

The big question

Can San Fran come out ahead in the passing games?

At their core the 49ers are a team built to win along both sides of the line of scrimmage. They’re a stout run defense, and have gotten after quarterbacks with regularity: Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, and Arden Key all notched at least 30 pressures during the season by Sports Info Solutions charting. They’ll need to disrupt Dak Prescott or he could shred a secondary that looks overmatched against the Cowboys’ talented receiving corps.

Shanahan won’t hesitate to bludgeon an opponent if they show they can’t stop the run, and he could try to replicate the Broncos week nine gameplan when they gashed Dallas on the ground. Garoppolo’s thumb injury could complicate things, as it impacted his ball placement in the regular season finale, which bodes poorly when he’s already prone to the occasional decision-making error when healthy.

7) Philadelphia Eagles

First game: at Tampa Bay

Connections to the Broncos

  • Kary Vincent is the lone Paton draft pick who did not play a single snap for the 2021 Broncos.
  • Mac McCain is a member of the Eagles practice squad after bounding back and forth between Denver and Philly.
  • Jonathan Gannon is interviewing for head coach. The defensive coordinator is one of two current candidates who made Paton’s first list of Fangio replacements in October.

The big question

Can Gannon find a way to slow down Tom Brady?

He failed miserably the first time as Brady completed 80.9% of his passes for 297 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. Brady was the fifth quarterback to complete 80% of his passes against Gannon’s defense this year. There was six total after only six did it from 1950 to 2020. The Eagles did improve on defense shortly after their last game against the Bucs, but it coincided with a seven-game slate against Teddy Bridgewater, Trevor Siemian, Daniel Jones, Zach Wilson, Garrett Gilbert, Mike Glennon, and Taylor Heinicke. They closed the season against Dak Prescott, who completed 77.7% of his passes as the Cowboys ran up 51 points on the Eagles backups.

Now they get Brady.

1) Tennessee Titans

First game: The lowest remaining AFC seed who survives Wildcard Weekend.

Connections to the Broncos:

  • Brett Kern was a Broncos punter before Josh McDaniels traded him in 2009.
  • Jamal Carter is a DB on the Titans’ practice squad after entering the league as the Broncos highest paid UDFA rookie in 2017.
  • Kyle Pecko signed with the Broncos after going undrafted in 2016 and played in six games across two years. He’s a part of the Titans’ defensive line rotation.

The big question

What does Derrick Henry look like?

The Titans enter the playoffs 20th by FO’s DVOA metrics, which pegs them as one of the weaker first seeds in recent memory, and their record is a testament to the job Mike Vrabel and the coaching staff put in to weather the storm of injuries that plagued them all year. The bye week puts Henry’s return on the table, though it remains to be seen if he can get back to Pro Bowl form after a Jones fracture in week nine.

2) Kansas City Chiefs

First game: vs. Steelers

Connections to the Broncos

  • Eric Bieniemy is one of the Broncos head coach candidates.

The big question

Can you really root for an AFC West foe?

There’s no denying Patrick Mahomes’ greatness, but I’m not rooting for him to reach the Peyton Manning and Tom Brady tier. Mahomes had the first rough stretch of his career to start the year due to some uncharacteristic mistakes, dropped passes, and poor turnover luck, but since week 10 he’s completed 67.57% of his passes for 2305 yards, 17 touchdowns, and three picks while taking 11 sacks. He’s enters the dance as lethal as ever.

3) Buffalo Bills

First game: vs. Patriots

Connections to the Broncos

  • Isaiah McKenzie is one of Elway’s third round picks, and he’s a tertiary receiver and returner. There’s a chance he could make some noise on punts, where the Pats’ coverage isn’t as strong as they’ve been in recent years.

The big question

Can Brian Daboll and Josh Allen shred Bill Belichick’s defense in a rubber match?

The Bills defense has trouble against smash mouth teams, and the offense is as Allen goes because they have a weak rushing attack. This has made them the most inconsistent team in football by DVOA. Weather played a huge factor in Allen’s production numbers in Buffalo’s first game against the Pats this year, but the bigger takeaway from that game is how he had to attempt 30 passes. New England has the personnel to match up with the Bills receivers and Belichick’s talent for disrupting quarterbacks is beyond question.

4) Cincinnati Bengals

First game: vs. Raiders

Connections to the Broncos

The big question

Will the offensive line hold up?

There’s a decent chance Cincy’s decision to select Ja’Marr Chase over Penei Sewell gets brought up if the game gets ugly, and it shouldn’t. The rookie receiver stepped in as an explosive number one receiver from day one, catching 81 passes for 1455 yards and 13 touchdowns. With that said, the Bengals didn’t do enough to fortify their line last year and they’re reliant on rookie Hakmee Adeniji and Isaiah Prince on the right side. The Raiders made the playoffs because Maxx Crosby dominated L.A.’s right tackle, and the rest of their defensive line is no joke. Quinton Jefferson is quietly one of the best free agent pickups from last offseason.

5) Las Vegas Raiders

First game: at Bengals

Connections to the Broncos

The big question

Can the Raiders’ front seven protect their back end?

The Bengals beat the tar out of the Raiders in week 11 with Joe Mixon doing damage on outside zone mixed with gap scheme runs, which helped to limit Burrow’s exposure to the Vegas pass rush and grind out the clock. It’s a bit of an outlier game for a strong Las Vegas run defense, and they have the personnel up front to ruin Burrow’s playoff debut. The secondary is another story entirely, and the Bengals offense is built to expose coordinators who play too many snaps out of single high coverages such as cover three. Such as Gus Bradley.

6) New England Patriots

First game: at Bills

Connections to the Broncos

  • Josh McDaniels has been a brilliant offensive mind for years, but he’s only ever been a head coach once. He was the Broncos head coach for 28 games from 2009-2010. After a number of dubious personnel decisions during his first offseason, he coached the Broncos to an 11-17 record before he was fired after a loss to the Chiefs in his second season. His tenure is infamous for “Spygate II?” and the Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall trades. I’d say his one saving grace is a few of his picks did work out, so he set the table for Peyton Manning. He was a part of the decision to draft Demaryius Thomas and Tim Tebow in the first round 2010, so he has a hand in one of the most magical plays in franchise history.
  • Matt Lacosse is on New England’s practice squad. The tight end joined the Patriots after catching passes from Case Keenum in 2018.
  • DeVante Bausby is a depth cornerback. The former AFL standout re-entered the NFL with the Fangio Broncos in 2019 and he played in 11 games in 2020.
  • Jerod Mayo is one of the Broncos’ 10 candidates for head coach. The 10th overall pick in the 2008 draft has three years of coaching experience, all with the Patriots.

The big question

Can Mac Jones beat the Bills if he has to throw more than 3 times?

That the Pats were able to win the first matchup with Jones throwing three passes hints at their blueprint for wins all year. The rookie has met my expectations for him pre-draft, but Belichick and McDaniels want to win playing bully ball and risking Jones’ exposure to extreme weather that’d impact his throws. It looks like there’s a chance for snow tomorrow, with 5 to 10 mph wind. Temperatures aren’t expected to get out of the single digits the entire day, and by game time it should be in the low single digits near zero with wind chill. It’s going to be one of the coldest games in postseason history.

7) Pittsburgh Steelers

First game: at Chiefs

Connections to the Broncos

  • Chaz Green spent a couple months in Denver after signing with the Broncos in June, 2019. He’s on the Steelers practice squad.

The big question

Ben Roethlisberger already said they have no chance against the Chiefs.

What are we doing here?

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