For much of the AFC, the divisional races are over. New England has the East locked up, Houston has an almost insurmountable three-game lead in the South, and Denver just clinched the West, leaving just the North with two games separating leading Baltimore from both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The wild-card races appear to be our only chance for late-season drama.
This year, even more so than any other season, multiple teams will be in that “good problem to have” situation, with only postseason positioning left to jockey for. While getting a possible first-round bye will likely keep the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in uniform, there will be questions to answer.
Do you keep your starters in for what might be a “meaningless” game?
Is it worth the risk to play your aging leader in hopes of keeping momentum?
This is a problem that the Broncos’ signal caller dealt with often during his time in Indianapolis. But each situation is different. Each year is a new set of circumstances.
Let’s look at how these last four games could play out for the Broncos as they prepare for the postseason.
Denver finishes the season with a relatively smooth slate of games after their rough gauntlet of early season opponents, which included the likes of Atlanta, Houston and New England. The latter being the one team the Broncos want to avoid on the road in the playoffs.
All hands must be on deck for this week’s game in Oakland. Avoiding a letdown is priority No. 1, even as the organization looks ahead to the following week’s looming matchup with Baltimore. This Thursday night contest is against a division rival, which matters.
Much was made of the Broncos’ “unimpressive” victory two weeks ago in Kansas City, but poll any current or former player and each of them would have taken any form of a victory in those circumstances. A win in Oakland would make the Broncos 10-3.
Next up is a road trip to face an overrated Baltimore Ravens team. No road game in the NFL should be taken lightly, but a fully-equipped Bronco team will march into Maryland and be able to put up points on a defense that continues to spend more and more time in the infirmary. Ray Lewis has been out and now word of a Terrell Suggs injury puts that unit at a major disadvantage against the ever-evolving high-powered Broncos offense. Another win and Denver will move to 11-3 with two remaining.
Two games that on paper appear to be complete cakewalks, with home games hosting Cleveland and Kansas City.
Manning’s health has been a national concern since the legend signed with Denver this summer. Now, after winning seven straight games and putting up MVP-like numbers in the process, worry has become an absent emotion. This team is “firing on all cylinders” with not only an explosive offense, but an emerging play-making defense anchored by the precocious young talent in Von Miller and the steady calming effect of cornerback Champ Bailey, as well.
With the division already in the bag, the real concern is where the postseason games will take place. Getting a first-round bye is completely still in play and avoiding a trip to Foxboro would be ideal for Denver.
So, play your studs. Let Peyton keep slinging the rock, give the young players added ammunition of confidence as they enter the postseason. Health is a day-to-day concern for all NFL teams, and before losing running back Willis McGahee, this Bronco group had been fortunate to avoid any major injuries.
Why start worrying now?