Down the stretch they come. There’s six weeks left in the NFL season, and now is the time when things start to take shape. Let’s take a look at where the AFC West teams stand as of now, the schedule ahead of them, and where they’re likely to end up at season’s end.
Denver – The Broncos are 7-3 and in firm control of the AFC West, as they ride a five-game winning streak. With a three game lead and the tie-breaker advantage over San Diego it’s almost inconceivable that the Broncos won’t win the division, guaranteeing them at least a home playoff game on wildcard weekend. With the division secure, Denver will set its sights on a first-round bye and possibly home-field advantage in the AFC, and they’ve got the schedule to make that happen.
Over their final six games the Broncos play the Raiders, Browns, and two games against the one-win Chiefs, which means they should get to at least 11 wins, with their only real challenges coming from Tampa Bay and Baltimore. In the conference standings, they are tied with the Patriots and trail the Ravens by a game and the Texans by two games. Denver would lose a tie breaker with both Houston and New England with Baltimore still on their schedule, but if they can run the table their chances to get a first-round bye are very good. Either way, the Broncos look good to get back to the playoffs for the second straight year and should be considered a threat in the AFC once they get there.
Kansas City – At 1-9 the end of the season can’t come soon enough for the Chiefs and their disappointed fan base. Kansas City may very well be the worst team in the NFL, and if nothing else they would like to avoid such a label being put on them at season’s end. The Chiefs have games against Carolina and Cleveland, both two-win teams, which will be their best chances to get an additional win or two this season. A road trip to Oakland could also be a winnable game, and their best chance to crawl their way out of the AFC West basement if they can also beat Carolina and Cleveland.
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Of course, they still have two games against Denver and one against a much-improved Colts team, so a 12-loss season may actually be the best-case scenario for them. As it stands now, the Chiefs are neck and neck with the 1-9 Jaguars for the first overall pick in next year’s draft, which is something to keep a close eye on as the Chiefs come down the stretch, especially since two teams left on their schedule (Carolina and Cleveland) are also competitors for the top overall pick.
Oakland – The Raiders ended October with two straight wins, which gave them a glimmer of hope for the postseason, but three straight losses has crushed any hope of that. At 3-7, even a .500 season seems like a pipe dream, but with San Diego’s struggles finishing second in the AFC West might not be too far fetched, and it would be something a first-year head coach and first-year general manager could hang their hat on.
Oakland will play each of their division rivals one more time, in addition to a home game against Cleveland and road trips to Cincinnati and Carolina. If the defense can start to actually defend people then all of their remaining games should be competitive and potential wins for the Raiders, even a Thursday night home date with Denver. However, if Oakland can’t get it together on the defensive side of the ball they could slip up and lose to the likes of Cleveland, Kansas City, or Carolina, which could not only put them in the AFC West basement but it would also put them in contention for the number one overall pick.
San Diego – If the Chargers could have beat the Broncos on Sunday they would have pulled within a game of the division lead; instead, they have now lost five of their last six games and are in a deep hole at 4-6. Although they will play four of their final six games at home, the competition the Chargers will face down the stretch is tough. Outside of what should be relatively easy wins home against Carolina and Oakland, San Diego will have home games against Baltimore and Cincinnati and road trips to Pittsburgh and the New York Jets.
In order to grab a wildcard spot the Chargers will have to jump above Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the standings, which makes their games against those teams absolute must wins. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine San Diego making the playoffs without winning at least five of their remaining six games, which would be a tall task for any team, let alone one that’s struggling as much as the Chargers are.