If the season were to end today, the Denver Broncos would be in the playoffs.
At 8-4, the Broncos have had a solid season that’s a near carbon-copy of last year’s title winner. A strong, dominating defense making up for an offense that often struggles to score.
But the Broncos trail the Raiders by two games and the Chiefs by one in the AFC West heading into Thursday night’s big matchup between Oakland and Kansas City. Yes, they’re guaranteed to make up one game against one of those teams (barring a tie), but they’ll also need a win Sunday at Tennessee to keep pace with the winner.
Their schedule doesn’t get any easier. The Broncos return home on Dec. 18 to play the 10-2 New England Patriots then close out the season with a Christmas night date in Kansas City and a New Year’s Day home game against the Oakland Raiders.
Those decked out in orange and blue will point out that the Broncos’ schedule, however tough it may be, still allows Denver to control its own destiny. You can’t ask for more than to beat the three teams that are ahead of you in the AFC.
The pessimists among the fanbase and elsewhere will point out Trevor Siemian’s foot troubles, Paxton Lynch’s inexperience and a decimated running back corps make a 2-2 record over those four games look like a pretty good goal.
Throw in charging wild-card contenders like the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins (all one game behind Denver at 7-5) and the Broncos have quite a challenge ahead of them.
At 4-8, the Carolina Panthers aren’t technically eliminated from the NFC playoff picture, but they might as well be. If both the Panthers and Broncos fall short, it’d be only the fifth time that both of the previous year’s Super Bowl teams missed out of the playoffs the next season.
The last time it happened was 2003, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Raiders went a combined 11-21. The other three times: 2002 (Patriots and Rams), 1999 (Broncos and Falcons) and 1988 (Redskins and Broncos).
The last Super Bowl winner to miss the playoffs the next season were the 2013 Baltimore Ravens.