Updated AFC playoff picture: Broncos hang on by a thread; need Ravens, Titans, Colts to collapse

Dec 2, 2018; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Denver Broncos running back Phillip Lindsay (30) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Following their 20-14 loss to the 49ers on Sunday, the Broncos saw their playoff hopes go down the drain. Not only did they lose, but the Colts, Dolphins, and Titans all won, further burying the Broncos.

The Broncos’ playoff odds now rest at just 5 percent according to FiveThirtyEight, as they’ll need several things to happen to play football in January for the first time since their 2015 Super Bowl run.

The first thing the Broncos need to keep their dream of a playoff birth alive is to win-out. A loss within their division to either the Raiders in Week 16 or Chargers in Week 17 would eliminate the Broncos from playoff contention entirely. A loss to the Browns on Saturday, and the Broncos playoff hopes–although still technically alive–would drop below 1 percent.

Winning the three games straight won’t be an easy task for the Broncos even though their remaining schedule may not seem too difficult. In fact, according to ESPN, Denver has a less than 50 percent chance of beating both the Browns and Raiders. When you add the Chargers game into that mix, the Broncos’ odds of going 3-0 down the stretch are just 18.5 percent. FiveThirtyEight is even less optimistic and gives the Broncos a mere 15.7 percent chance.

For the sake of argument though, let’s just say the Broncos win out. They would then need either the Steelers or Ravens to drop two of their next three. The Ravens finish their schedule versus the Buccaneers, at the Chargers, and home against the Browns, not a tough slate to say the least. Their odds of winning fewer than two of those games is 28.1 percent according to FiveThirtyEight.

The Steelers, on the other hand, give the Broncos a better chance. They’re in the midst of a three-game losing streak and look as cold as they have all season. They finish their schedule versus the Patriots, at the Saints and home against the Bengals, giving them a 45.8 percent chance to win fewer than two games. Bringing the combined odds of either the Ravens or Steelers losing two out three to 61.0 percent.

The Broncos will also need help from the Dolphins, Colts and Titans, who all currently sit ahead of them in the playoff picture. Luckily for the Broncos, their loss lost week came against an NFC team, meaning it won’t hurt them as much when it comes to tiebreakers. This is where things get complicated.

To pass the Colts, the Broncos will need to win out and have the Colts lose either one or two games depending on the opponent. If the Colts lose to the Titans in Week 17, the Broncos will tie the Colts in in-conference-record (7-5) and hold the edge in games between common opponents (3-2 to 2-3). Without the loss to the Titans, the Broncos would need the Colts to lose both of their other games (home games against the Cowboys and Giants) as the Broncos would need a better record overall because they’d lose the in-conference record tiebreaker. FiveThirtyEight gives the Colts a 62 percent chance to lose to the Titans, but just a 17.5 percent chance of them losing both games against the Cowboys and Giants. This brings the combined odds of the Colts dropping behind Denver to 68.7 percent.

The Titans will be the easiest team for Denver to pass. Assuming Denver wins out, they’ll just need Tennessee to drop any one of their games because the Broncos would control the tiebreaker. The Titans’ remaining schedule is at the Giants, versus Washington, and at home against the Colts. Ideally, for the Broncos, the Titans would lose in either Week 15 or 16, so that a win in Week 17 would knock the Colts out of contention without knocking the Broncos out as well. The odds of the Titans losing in either of the next two weeks is 63.3 percent, the odds of them losing at least one game overall is 77.2 percent.

Lastly, the Broncos will need to pass the Dolphins. The Dolphins are similar to the Colts in the sense that both are one game ahead of Denver and hold the in-conference record tiebreaker over them. This means, like the Colts, the Dolphins will have to either lose one game in conference to even things up with the Broncos, or lose two games overall. Though, unlike the Colts, the Dolphins would still hold the tiebreaker advantage. This means the Broncos need the Dolphins to lose any two of their next three games which come at the Vikings, home against the Jaguars, and at the Bills. The chances of the Dolphins losing at least two of those games is 56.6 percent according to FiveThirtyEight.

The Broncos will need a lot of help in order to make the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean they can lose focus on the task in front of them like they did last week. In fact, the least likely piece in the “Broncos playoff puzzle” is them winning-out. Every other variable has a greater than 50 percent chance of swinging in the Broncos favor.

The Broncos will play the Browns at 6:20 P.M. MST at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on Saturday.