SPORTS: Rick Jussel Column November 16, 2008

It could happen: seven wins might be enough to win the AFC West

Is it possible — even by the remotest of scenarios — for a team to finish 7-9 and earn a playoff berth in the National Football League?

It’s not only possible, it’s likely.

And, yes, it is going to happen in our beloved AFC West.

Maybe I spoke a bit too soon last week when I said the Denver Broncos were toast.

What I failed to factor in was the Fall of the San Diego Chargers, just a few slim months ago one of the Super Bowl favorites, and the overwhelming choice to win the West. Now, the Chargers have fallen to the point where they have to luck out at home to nip hapless Kansas City on a last-second failed 2-point conversion by the Chiefs.

Denver sits at 5-4, still on top in the West by a game over the Chargers, and still holding out hope
that everything is hunky-dory despite the fact that they have no running backs to speak of, no linebackers nor safeties we’ve ever heard of, and no ability to stop the run on a consistent basis.

True, they do still have Jay Cutler at quarterback, some superb wide receivers now that the starters can get on the field at one time, and now a pass-catching threat at tight end in Tony Scheffler who can stretch the field.

However, I totally agree with Bill Simmons, ESPN’s “Sports Guy,” who says Denver’s 34-30 come-from-behind win over Cleveland just more than a week ago was “a stay of execution,” not a great victory.

While Denver did get back into the go-for-broke mode on offense ­ in part because they are down to the likes of you and me and Tatum Bell at the running back spot — it’s also a fact that they gave up 399 yards and 30 points to a Cleveland team that was starting a new quarterback.

That does not bode well for the future.

Denver’s defensive struggles have been well-chronicled, but the Chargers’ collapse has been maybe even more spectacular. A spectacular defensive team in recent years, they have fallen to 26th in the NFL, just three spots ahead of Denver.

The Chargers are allowing 368 yards per game, 264 of those by passing. Denver, by comparison, is allowing 389 yards per game, 242 passing and 146 rushing.

To put this into perspective, all four AFC West teams rank in the bottom seven defensively, with Oakland ranked No. 25 and the Chiefs dead last at No. 32.

This is why 7-9 might get you a playoff berth.

The Chargers will likely be favored the last game of the regular season in San Diego against Denver, but they probably will only be favored to win two other games — against Oakland in San Diego and possibly against the Chiefs in Kansas City.

The Chargers play at Pittsburgh today, host Indianapolis, Atlanta and Oakland, play at Kansas City, at Tampa Bay, and then finish it off at home against Denver.

If they win three games, that puts them at 7-9 – and maybe the winner of a tiebreaker against Denver.

The Broncos still have today’s matchup in Atlanta against the vastly improved Falcons, then play at home against Oakland, at the New York Jets, at home against the Chiefs, at Carolina, at home against Buffalo, then face the finale in San Diego.

I make the Broncos favorites against Oakland and Kansas City ­— and no one else.

According to Hoyle, that puts the Broncos at 7-9 and dependent upon the tiebreaker against the Chargers.

One of those 7-9 teams is going to win the AFC West, then face a road wild-card game.

As for today, Atlanta is 4-0 at home this year, has already pounded Kansas City and Oakland, and matches up very well against Denver. The Falcons control the ball behind the running of Michael
Turner and the short passing game led by rookie QB Matt Ryan.

They also have a very aggressive, blitzing defense that has given opposing QBs fits with the pass rush.

Denver will have Cutler back in the shotgun much of the time, meaning he’s the big hope.

Don’t see it happening: I’ll take my rapidly fading 4-5 record picking with or against the Broncos (3-5-1 vs. the spread), and say Denver, a 51/2-point underdog, covers the spread but still loses.

I make it a reversal of the Cleveland score: Falcons 34, Denver 30.

A thought to leave with: Think of what would be if Denver somehow wins today.


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