Fans of the Denver Broncos were hoping for an early Christmas present when the Broncos squared off against the struggling Buffalo Bills on Saturday, but they instead received a feeling more comparable to waking up with a New Year’s Day hangover.
With a win against the Bills and a loss by the Oakland Raiders in Week 16, the Broncos would have wrapped up their first AFC West division title since 2005 and earn a spot in the 2011 NFL Playoffs. Neither of those things happened. The Broncos fell hard to the Bills in a 14-40 loss and the Raiders defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in overtime, 16-13. With back-to-back losses going into the last week of the regular season, Broncos’ fans are starting to have déjà vu of late season falls of the recent past that cost the team chances at the postseason.
After a 13-3 regular season record and a playoff run that took the team all the way to the AFC Championship game in 2005, the Broncos hoped to repeat such a season in 2006. The Broncos went into the final game of the regular season with a 9-7 record and needing to win or tie in a match-up against the San Francisco 49ers to make the playoffs. The Broncos would ultimately lose to the 49ers in overtime and miss the playoffs.
Probably the Broncos most notable late season failure was in 2008, when they entered Week 15 with an 8-5 record and a three game lead over their nearest AFC West competitor. All they had to do to secure the division title and a spot in the playoffs was win one of their remaining three games. They were defeated by the Carolina Panthers 10-30 and followed that up with a loss to the division rival Chiefs the next week. Trying to hold onto a slim division lead, the Broncos went into a crucial match-up with the San Diego Chargers in the last week of the regular season. With everything on the line, the Broncos were derailed by the Chargers 21-52 and lost the division title, becoming the first team in NFL history to enter the final three weeks of a season with a three-game lead and lose all three games. This epic collapse led to the firing of head coach Mike Shanahan, who had coached the Broncos for 13 years and led the team to two Super Bowl wins.
Shanahan’s replacement was New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who at the time of his hiring was the youngest head coach in the league. The Broncos under the new regime couldn’t have started out any better in 2009, with the team going undefeated in their first six games. The Broncos momentum train was rolling right along, until after the teams bye week when the wheels came off. The Broncos would go 2-8 the remainder of the season, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
Although a Broncos loss and Raiders win on Christmas Eve made the AFC West title race a dead heat to the finish line, the Broncos still have a chance to defy history and win the division outright with a victory at home against the now eliminated from division contention Kansas City Chiefs in Week 17. Should the Broncos lose, they still have a chance to win the division and make the playoffs should the Chargers (who were also eliminated from division contention with a 10-38 loss to the Detroit Lions Saturday) defeat the Raiders. In this scenario, both Denver and Oakland would finish the season with 8-8 records, respectively, but the Broncos would hold the tie-breaker over the Raiders and win the AFC West.
The easiest way to explain the Week 17 division and playoff scenarios for the Denver Broncos is “win, and your in” or hope for a Raiders loss. However, former Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton will look for revenge and try to play spoiler as he leads the Chiefs into Sports Authority Field at Mile High in a critical division match-up that will either lead to the Broncos first AFC West title and playoff berth in six years, or add another notch to a disappointing list of late season breakdowns.
The Broncos still control their own destiny, and in a season where the team is at their best when it’s needed the most, what better dramatic storybook situation could you ask for.
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