The Denver Broncos possess the top seed in the AFC at 11-2 and are essentially two games in front of their top rival in the AFC West, the 10-3 Kansas City Chiefs, with just three games to play.
All of which is well and good.
Denver, however, desperately needs a bye week – one of those rare late-season weeks where starters can be asked (or told) to sit, watch and recuperate because the outcome just doesn’t matter.
For the Broncos to operate at peak efficiency in the playoffs, which they qualified for Sunday with their 51-28 victory over the Tennessee Titans, they need to have their best players on the field. That hasn’t been the case of late, especially on the defensive side, with players dropping at an alarming rate.
The Broncos have had a revolving door into and out of the training room over the last month as X-rays and MRIs have become all too frequent.
Defensive players Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson, Derek Wolfe, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey have all missed significant playing time. Middle linebacker Wesley Woodyard is now being rested on likely rushing plays, replaced with the larger Paris Lenin.
At one point Sunday, Denver’s secondary consisted of Chris Harris, Quentin Jammer, David Bruton, Omar Bolden and Kayvon Webster. Say what?
Offensive players Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Orlando Franklin have also missed significant game time, added to the long-gone Ryan Clady.
Franklin went down Sunday and was out for a number of series, replaced by Winston Justice. It was probably not coincidental that the Broncos started clicking offensively only when Franklin returned.
The league’s sure-fire MVP, quarterback Peyton Manning, was forced to play for two weeks with what amounted to a cast on his bad ankle, with the other ankle also a mess.
And now, wide receiver Wes Welker has, for the second time in three weeks, been bent, folded and mutilated to the point of concussion, rendering him questionable for the foreseeable future.
The Broncos need a break. They can’t afford one.
If Denver would go 2-1 in its final three games and the New England Patriots 3-0, it would set up the dreaded scenario in which the Broncos would have to travel back to New England for the AFC Title Game. We know how those match-ups have gone in the past.
What the Broncos need in the worst way is a New England loss.
That should have happened Sunday as the Patriots trailed at home against Cleveland 27-14 with less than two minutes remaining. However, a combination of penalties against the Browns, an on-side kick recovery by the Patriots and the usual steady stream of successful Tom Brady pass plays late in a game allowed the Patriots to escape with the 28-27 win.
But the win was costly to the Pats as All-World tight end Rob Gronkowski went down to a torn ACL for the rest of the season. The Patriots were terrible offensively without him early – and will certainly take a step back without him late.
Ah yes, late. What does that involve for all the AFC contenders?
Denver has a tough assignment on short notice this week, hosting the 6-7 San Diego Chargers Thursday. Philip Rivers brings his team in on an offensive roll and still alive in the wild-card chase. Remaining games are on the road at 2-11 Houston and at 4-9 Oakland.
The Patriots, sans Gronkowski, will sit back and watch Denver play on Thursday night, then face two tough road games in a row – at Miami and at Baltimore, both still playoff hopefuls – before a seeming gimme in the finale at home against Buffalo.
Kansas City, still a threat if Denver stumbles more than once, is at Oakland Sunday, has a home match-up against struggling Indy, then finishes on the road against the Chargers.
For the Broncos, the answer is easy: Win until you create your own bye week.
That, however, will be much easier said than done.