Jussel: Broncos fans can thank Niners for 1st-round bye
You might want to sign the “Thank You, 49ers” card that is being passed around.
We’ll send it out as soon as we get just a few more signatures.
And (more on this in just a moment) you might want to get out another thank-you card or two if you are a Denver Broncos fan.
San Francisco — despite rain, despite the fact no team ever gets the best of Bill Belichick and his Patriots in the winter months in New England, despite 300 yards passing from Tom Brady in the second half, despite having a defense that was dead on its feet, handed the Broncos a huge early Christmas gift Sunday night.
The loss dropped New England to 10-4 on the season, just after Denver had improved to 11-3 with its first victory ever in Baltimore over the Ravens. It handed the Broncos the second seed in the AFC and instantly made the final two games of the season meaningful for Denver, despite being against lowly Cleveland and lowlier Kansas City, with both slated for New Mile High Stadium.
If Denver takes care of business against the Browns and Chiefs, there is no way the Patriots can catch the Broncos for the second seed. And that means the Broncos’ not-so-anticipated rematch against the Patriots would be played in Denver, not on the far side of the country.
Had New England beaten the 49ers, all the Patriots would have had to do was win a couple of gimmes at Jacksonville and at home against Miami to earn the second seed, maybe even the top seed. Now, they will most likely have to claw their way through another playoff game and then head out on the road.
And now, Bronco fans, instead of getting an extended sneak preview of rookie quarterback Brock Osweiler, you will watch Peyton Manning work his magic the next two weeks for at least as long as necessary. Osweiler will be relegated to mop-up duty and have to settle for extended action only next summer in a few preseason contests.
The playoff scenario for the Broncos as it sits now would have the Broncos with a first-round bye, then hosting the winner of the No. 3 seed vs. the No. 6 seed. That would be the Patriots.
On the other side of the AFC bracket, Houston, 12-2 after beating Indy on Sunday, needs to win only one of its final two games to clinch the top seed.
This, however, is where it gets a bit tricky. This is where you might want to get out more thank-you cards.
Houston doesn’t have an easy road to winning two more games.
Sunday, the Texans play at home against Minnesota, with the Vikings 8-6 and very much in the thick of the NFC wild-card chase. Yes, this is the same Vikings team that hammers Adrian Peterson at you play after play as he merrily works his way toward the all-time NFL season rushing record.
Minnesota could beat the Texans because the Houston squad is built to rush the passer, not stop the runner.
If the Vikings beat the Texans, that would make the last game of the regular season at Indy vitally important to Houston and the Colts, and it would be the second time the two teams play in three weeks. Had the Colts, who will also be playing for a wild-card berth on that day, been able to hold onto the football Sunday, they might have beaten the Texans in Houston.
Andrew Luck and the Colts could certainly beat Houston in Indy.
If Houston loses two games, the Texans would be 12-4 and likely drop all the way to the third seed because the Patriots pounded the Texans earlier in the season.
All of this means Denver could — and it will certainly take a bundle of good karma — become the top seed and host two playoff games on the way to a Super Bowl berth.
One thank-you card sent to the 49ers and Denver has a bye, the Patriots at New Mile High and most likely the Texans in Houston.
A couple of other thank-you cards to Minnesota and Indianapolis and Denver would have a bye, then a Houston rematch in Denver, then the Patriots in the AFC title game in Denver.
Then it’s on to New Orleans and the Super Bowl, with the 49ers much more likely to be the opponent than the feel-good Manning Bros. matchup.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Rick Jussel is a former Daily Sentinel sports editor (think Dark Ages) and Grand Junction High School journalism teacher who belongs in the Armchair Quarterback Hall of Fame, if only there was one.