The Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals started 10-2. Entering Sunday, they were in the 1st and 2nd positions in the AFC. Now, after a disastrous day that saw Andy Dalton break his thumb and the Denver Broncos struggle at home, both have a real (though slim) chance of missing out on the postseason.
No team that started 10-2 since the merger has missed the playoffs (source: pro-football-reference.com). Only three teams (2008 Buccaneers, 1993 Dolphins, 1988 Saints) have missed the postseason after starting 9-3, since the wildcard game was added in 1978. [update: Philadelphia also missed last season at 9-3, by losing 3 of the last 4).
I thought I would quickly go down the disaster scenarios that would leave either of these teams (who play each other in week 16) making history in a bad way.
The Bengals are in better tiebreaker and overall shape to make it than Denver, though practically they are in worse shape after losing their QB.
Cincinnati is in with a win, either as AFC North champs or as a wildcard.
They would win a division tiebreaker over Pittsburgh at 11-5, if they can beat Baltimore at home in week 17, because of a better division record. A win over Denver would also give them a conference games tiebreaker over Pittsburgh, even if they lost at San Francisco.
They could lose the division by only beating San Francisco, if Pittsburgh wins the last three games. However, they would still advance at 11-5. If it came down to a three team tiebreaker with the Chiefs/Broncos and Jets, they would be one of the top two in any scenario.
Thus, the Bengals will only have a chance to miss if they lose out. Of course, they do have two road games before returning to face the rival Ravens, who will be better off if Matt Schaub has returned (and yes, I really wrote that). And they still would also be okay if any of Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or the Jets lost a game, as they would win a 10-6 tiebreaker over each.
I’d say, that even though Pittsburgh and Kansas City will be favored in each remaining game, there is a less than 5% chance all of them end up at 11-5. Cincinnati is probably okay, though limping in would inspire no confidence.
The Broncos, on the other hand, almost certainly need to get to 11 wins to have a chance to get in, and 12 to win the division. They would be in tiebreaker trouble against all the remaining contenders with losses.
Denver would lose a tiebreaker at 11-5 if Kansas City wins out. The chances of the Chiefs doing so are around 50%. That’s because KC would get to a 5-1 division record.
Denver would also miss out if there was a three-way tiebreaker with Pittsburgh/Cincinnati and the Jets at 11-5 for the two wildcard spots. Denver went 4-0 against NFC North teams, and would have the worst conference record.
Denver would have very little chance at 10-6, by not winning any more games. They would again lose any 10-6 tiebreaker. The realistic hope there is that the Jets lose two of the last three games; the Jets do after all have to host New England in week 16.
It’s very possible that Denver enters the week 17 home game against San Diego still needing a result. The Chargers have really struggled, but I don’t think you want Philip Rivers lurking with a chance to beat you and knock you out. If Denver loses the next two, they could even go into that game not even controlling their own destiny for a playoff spot, if the Jets, Chiefs, and Steelers also get to 10-5.
The Broncos certainly have more of a chance on missing out. They are still at least 90% to reach the postseason, but we would have thought it was a formality, until Sunday’s loss.