Jussel: Broncos need to improve in order to beat AFC’s elite

Bits ‘n’ pieces …

The Denver Broncos are going to win the AFC West.

That’s a given. One Bronco win or San Diego loss and it’s official.

Denver, now 8-3, has games remaining against three teams with losing records: Oakland, Cleveland and Kansas City, with both the Browns and Chiefs games in Denver.

So, let’s look for a letdown?

Not hardly.

John Fox’s team has a couple of huge tasks to deal with.

First, it must continue to improve. Wins the past couple of weeks against the Chargers and Chiefs have shown us Denver is good enough to win without playing at its absolute best. But they have left some sour tastes with turnovers and dropped passes. And, oh yes, QB Peyton Manning has also been a bit erratic at times, much of that because of pressure from the pass rush.

The Broncos have to play virtually mistake-free to contend with the playoff teams they will eventually face.

Speaking of which …

One might think they would like to move up in the seeding race.

If the playoffs were to start today, Denver would be seeded fourth and host fifth-seed Indy in the wild-card round. The third-seeded Patriots would host sixth-seeded Pittsburgh in the other AFC wild-card game, with top-seeded Houston and second-seeded Baltimore drawing byes that first weekend.

If seeds hold and there are no upsets in the wild-card round, Denver would travel to Houston Week 2 of the playoffs, and New England would travel to Baltimore.

The seeding, however, will likely change plenty over the final five weeks of the season, with the scary team right now being New England.

The Patriots have scored 407 points this season. Houston and Denver are the only other AFC teams with more than 300 points, the Texans with 327 and Denver with 318.

Yes, the Patriots’ offense is running at full speed in the air and on the ground — and the scary thing is that their defense is starting to play much better and is forcing turnovers at a rapid rate. Twenty-one points in 52 seconds in last week’s romp over the Jets is a great example.

The Patriots still have tough home games with Houston and San Francisco remaining, but also face Miami twice and Jacksonville — games they should win handily. Because they are so nasty at home, the Pats will be favored against both Houston and the 49ers and probably double-digit favorites or more against the others.

Of the teams currently in the playoff scenario, banged-up Baltimore faces a tough road the rest of the way with games against Pittsburgh, at Washington, Denver, the Giants and at Cincinnati.

The Ravens will have to go some to win twice and could tumble from that second seed all the way to fifth or sixth.

Indy and Houston still have a home-and-home series against each other and, as mentioned, Houston also has to face the Patriots.

Darkhorse to watch in the playoff chase: Cincinnati, which has won three in a row after losing to the Broncos on Nov. 4, with one of those wins a 31-13 pounding of the defending-champion Giants.

The Bengals, now 6-5, also have a favorable schedule, with San Diego, Dallas, Philly and two key matchups to finish with in division foes Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Marvin Lewis’ team is healthy and could certainly affect that wild-card race, quite possibly catching a struggling continuously banged-up Steeler squad.

When all the shouting, shoving and scoring is done in the regular season, here’s my playoff scenario in the AFC:

Drawing byes will be top-seeded New England at 13-3, with Houston the second seed, also at 13-3, but a loser of the tiebreaker to the Pats.

Denver will win three of its remaining five and finish at 11-5. Baltimore will lose three of its remaining five to also finish at 11-5, but lose the tiebreaker to Denver by virtue of Denver’s win in Baltimore on Dec. 16.

Thus, Denver will win the third seed and play host to sixth-seeded 9-7 Cincinnati, which will catch and pass Pittsburgh for a spot in the playoffs.

The fifth seed will go to Indy, sending the 10-6 Colts to Baltimore.

Denver will beat the Bengals and Baltimore will beat the Colts to set up a second round that has New England hosting Baltimore and Denver at Houston — all of which would mean Denver moving up in the seeding race from No. 4 to No. 3 would mean absolutely nothing.

Unless, of course, New England can’t climb into that top spot, which would mean the Broncos would head to New England — again, which we all know hasn’t been a pretty sight of late.

Rick Jussel is a former sports editor of The Daily Sentinel.


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