DENVER -- In December in Denver, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and it’s beginning to feel a lot like trouble for the Broncos.
Snow is coming again this week, and the Broncos are going to Nashville on Sunday. Neither is a particularly inviting proposition.
When the season – the NFL season, not the holiday season – started, the three-game stretch at the end seemed grueling, grim, Grinch-like. The Broncos have to finish with New England, Kansas City and Oakland.
Now, consider that the Patriots and the Raiders, who both won on Sunday, are 10-2, and the Chiefs, who had another miraculous victory (over Atlanta following the one over Denver), are barely behind at 9-3. The Broncos are chasing at 8-4 and currently hold, tenuously, to the second wild-card spot.
And here is something nobody figured on. The Titans are 6-6 and tied with the Texans for the top spot in the AFC South.
The Titans are favored at home by a point and a half over the Broncos. This is the most important game for the Titans in years, and, suddenly, it becomes very critical for the Broncos. Lose in Tennessee, and the Broncos will have only a remote chance of winning the AFC West, and their road to the playoffs is, as the Beatles once submitted, will be long and winding – and hard. A defeat in Music City, and the Broncos will have to win all three of their remaining games. A defeat in Nashville, and the Broncos put the Dolphins, the Titans, the Ravens, the Steelers, the Texans, the Colts and even the Bills in the postseason picture.
I had a disgusting thought just a few minutes ago: The Colts, the Titans and the Texans all could win the AFC South, and one will host the first round of the playoffs. The Broncos, if they do make it, might have to play in Indianapolis against a healthy Andrew Luck, in Houston in a rematch against Brock Osweiler or in Tennessee once more to play M&M -- Mariota & Murray.
Even worse, the Broncos might have to play against Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh or Joe Flacco in Baltimore. We know what happened when the Broncos went to Pittsburgh last season, and you remember what happened the last time Flacco was throwing in a playoff game against the Broncos.
As the sixth seed, the Broncos would have to play in the town of the conference’s third seed. Pittsburgh and Baltimore are tied for that position currently. If the Broncos reach the fifth seed, which isn’t as likely, they’d play in in the fourth seed’s stadium. That could be a dome in Indy or Houston, or outdoors in Tennessee.
The AFC South and the AFC North are quite undecided, given Houston’s dive and the rise of the Titans, and the Colts lurking about (with a home game this week against Texas and Brock).
It’s not too early to examine the possibilities.
First, Oakland plays at Kansas City on Thursday night, and temperatures will hover in the teens. You’ve seen the Chiefs morph into last year’s Broncos, winning games on flukes, fakes and two-point conversion returns. There would be no surprise if K.C. knocks off the Raiders. The Chiefs already won in Oakland earlier this season. If so, the Chiefs, by virtue of the double play against the Raiders and the triumph in overtime against the Broncos, would be the leaders in the AFC West at 10-3. (They end up with home games against these Titans and these Broncos, and a finale in San Diego.
The Raiders have the Chiefs, the Chargers and the Broncos on the road sandwiched around a home game with the Colts.
It should be assumed that the Chiefs and the Raiders will win at least 11. The Broncos, by virtue of a 1-3 record in the division and 5-3 in the conference, don’t hold any tiebreakers.
And they have the quarterback matter. It’s assumed that Trevor Siemian will return in Tennessee. After seeing Paxton Lynch in Jacksonville, the Broncos would have serious problems with him at quarterbacks for another game. But will Trevor Siemian be completely well with a foot injury? Another Denver QB had a foot injury last year. And there is this: DeMarco Murray is second in the league in rushing with 1,043 yards. Marcus Mariota has 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. The Titans aren’t slugs like the Jaguars.
Frankly, the Broncos could lose all four remaining games, and they wouldn’t have to worry about playing anywhere in the first round. If they lose three, 10-6 may not do it. And even if they lose only two of four, an 11-5 record probably won’t win the division (given the tiebreakers).
This game appeared to be a pleasant visit to the South before the NFL season began. This game could be an unpleasant trip before the holiday season.