NFL playoff race: How far can the Denver Broncos go?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos have now won eight games in a row. Here's what Denver needs to do to lock down a first-round bye.

Denver clinched the division last week with a win over Tampa Bay and another San Diego loss. On Thursday night, the Broncos rolled up the Raiders with a 26-13 victory.

Unless John Fox forgets to change the oil in Peyton Manning's neck after the season, the Denver Broncos can enjoy a few more seasons atop the AFC West. Winning that division is nothing special these days. The real question is just how far the Broncos can go in the playoffs.

More: NFL playoff scenarios | NFL playoff picture

The press is naturally drawn to Peyton Manning as the lead story in Denver. Understandable. This time last year, the rumor mill was alive with whispers that Manning's playing career might be over. It's the kind of comeback only Manning could pull off. He leads the league in passing yards and completions and ranks among the 10 best in all the other major quarterback categories.

But Manning's only part of why the Broncos are in the conversation for a Super Bowl.

Opponents are scoring fewer than 20 points per game against Denver. The run defense ranks among the league's best, having allowed just five touchdowns and an average of 3.6 yards per attempt. And then there's Von Miller. In just his second season, Miller is part of a three-way race for Defensive Player of the Year. Miller has 16 of the Broncos' 39 sacks, tied for the most by any team in the NFL.

Not to be overlooked is Denver's ability to run the ball. Knowshon Moreno now has three starts under his belt since replacing veteran Willis McGahee. Thursday night's 32-carry, 119-yard effort was his best yet.

Thursday's win puts the Broncos at 10-3. For now, Denver has the second seed in the AFC, but the Ravens and Patriots could both get to 10 wins this week keeping it a three-way race for spot behind the Houston Texans. Of course, any of those three teams has the potential to grab the top seed in the conference, but unless Michael "Heckuva Job Brownie" Brown steps in for Gary Kubiak, that seems unlikely.

Take a look at the remaining schedules for each of the top four seeds in the AFC:

Houston Texans, 11-1

  • at New England
  • vs. Indianapolis
  • vs. Minnesota
  • at Indianapolis

Denver Broncos, 10-3

  • at Baltimore
  • vs. Cleveland
  • vs. Kansas City
Baltimore Ravens, 9-3
New England Patriots, 9-3
  • vs. Houston
  • vs. San Francisco
  • at Jacksonville
  • vs. Miami

Which team has the path of least resistance? I'm tempted to say Houston, though a pair of games against the Colts is no slam dunk. The real test for the Texans comes this week in New England, the only team scoring more points on average than the Texans.

Injuries to the defense and the incredible shrinking Joe Flacco make for major questions about the Ravens. This is the team that lost to the Charlie Batch-led Steelers last week. The Ravens have the toughest schedule of any team on the list here.

The Patriots have to get through the next two weeks, but playing the Texans and 49ers at home softens the blow. Belichick gets a pair of opportunities to run up the score and pad his team's record over the last two weeks of the season.

Denver is at a disadvantage in the seeding because of losses to the Patriots and Texans early in the season that would give those two teams the edge as tiebreakers. Two home games against the Browns and Chiefs is a nice way to finish the season. The Broncos are locked into a playoff spot now. Beating the Ravens on the road next week is a must for the Broncos to stay in the mix for a first-round bye.

The Ravens game will also answer another big question about the Broncos: whether that team can beat its playoff-bound peers. Only one of the Broncos' opponents over the current eight-game win streak has a record above .500, the Bengals. Denver's three losses this season came at the hands of Atlanta, Houston and New England.

If the playoffs started today, the Broncos would have a first-round bye and a date with the winner of the Wild Card game between the Colts and Patriots. Denver's eating up lesser opponents right now. In three weeks, Manning et al won't have the AFC West to kick around anymore. Will the Broncos be ready?

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