ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --The Broncos' path to the postseason remains in their hands, but they have lost their margin for error after an ill-timed two-game losing streak.
The 10-4 Broncos can earn at least the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye with wins over the Bengals and Chargers in Weeks 16 and 17, regardless of what happens with the Chiefs, Steelers and Jets, all of whom sit one game back at 9-5.
However, if the Broncos lose one of their next two games, they would need at least one loss or tie by the Chiefs, Steelers or Jets to make the postseason.
If the Broncos lost once, they could only win the division if the Chiefs lost or tied at home to the 3-11 Browns or the 6-8 Raiders, their opponents in the final two weeks. The Broncos would need two Chiefs losses to still win the division if they lost their final two regular-season games (or had one loss and one tie).
These division situations exist because the Chiefs win any tiebreaker with the Broncos based on a superior record within AFC West games.
If the Broncos and Chiefs are tied at 11-5, the Chiefs will be 5-1 in the AFC West, while the Broncos can be no better than 4-2. If the teams finish tied at 10-6, the Broncos would have a 3-3 division record because that would include a loss to San Diego in Week 17; the Chiefs' worst possible division record at 10-6 would be 4-2.
Losing a tiebreaker with the Chiefs for the AFC West crown would then force the Broncos into a potential wild-card tiebreaker with the Jets, Steelers or both. (Division ties are broken before wild-card ties, so the AFC West would be decided, then the Broncos would be tossed into the pot with the Jets and Steelers).
The Broncos would lose every possible tiebreak with those teams via Sunday's head-to-head loss with the Steelers, an inferior conference record to the Jets, and an inferior conference record to both teams in a three-way tiebreaker.
In this scenario, the Broncos could miss the playoffs at 11-5 because of their tiebreaker disadvantages against Kansas City, Pittsburgh and the Jets. (Meanwhile, a division winner with at least seven losses will make the playoffs. The Broncos benefitted from this in 2011; they were victimized by this in 1985 and could be there again if that scenario comes to pass.)
On the positive side for the Broncos, they can clinch the AFC West this week with a win over the Bengals and a Chiefs loss or tie to the Browns. They can also clinch at least a wild-card spot with a win and a loss or tie by the Jets (to the Patriots) or the Steelers (to the Ravens).
But the Broncos, Steelers, Jets and Chiefs all win in Week 16, this creates a potentially wild Week 17 that sees every possibility from the No. 1 seed to missing the playoffs entirely in play for the Broncos. Denver can still get the top seed with two wins and two Patriots losses, because they would win that potential tiebreaker based on the head-to-head result in Week 12. But because of the afore-mentioned tiebreaker situations, they could be out at 11-5.
The Broncos are still in good shape, but are walking on a precipice now. Depending on how their rivals fare, they could be out of mulligans.
A QUICK GUIDE TO THE BRONCOS' POSSIBLE PLAYOFF SCENARIOS:**
WIN THEIR NEXT TWO GAMES:Broncos clinch playoff bye and No. 2 seed; can be No. 1 seed if Patriots lose twice.
WIN ONE GAME AND TIE THE OTHER:Broncos clinch AFC West crown; would earn the No. 2 seed if the win is against the Bengals, who would then have to lose their Week 17 game against Baltimore. If the Broncos go 1-0-1 -- including a win over Cincinnati -- and the Bengals defeat the Ravens, the Broncos would be the No. 3 seed and host a game in the wild-card round. If the Broncos and Bengals tie, Cincinnati earns a first-round bye, and the Broncos would win the AFC West by defeating San Diego.
WIN ONE GAME AND LOSE THE OTHER:Broncos win the AFC West if Kansas City loses or ties at least one game. Broncos make the playoffs as a wild-card entry if the Chiefs win two games and the Steelers or Jets lose or tie at least once. Broncos miss the playoffs if the Chiefs, Steelers and Jets win out.
LOSE ONE GAME AND TIE THE OTHER:Broncos win the AFC West if Kansas City loses either of its last two games (or ties both games, which has a Powerball-like chance of happening). Broncos make the playoffs as a wild-card entry if the Chiefs go at least 1-0-1 and the Steelers or Jets lose at least once. Broncos miss the playoffs if the Chiefs, Steelers and Jets win once and get at least a tie in their other game.
LOSE THEIR NEXT TWO GAMES:Broncos win the AFC West if Kansas City loses both games, or loses one and ties one. Broncos make the playoffs as a wild-card entry if the Chiefs win at least one game, and the Steelers or Jets go 0-1-1 or 0-2. Broncos miss the playoffs if the Chiefs, Jets and Steelers each win at least one game.