The last time the Denver Broncos grabbed the top seed in the AFC was the 1998-99 season. That 14-2 Broncos squad drew the Dan Marino-led Miami Dolphins in the divisional round, beat the stuffing out of them, and then handled the New York Jets in the AFC title game, before beating the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.
It was a great outcome, especially as it also allowed the Broncos to wipe away the bad one-seed mojo of 1996 which saw a top-seeded Broncos team take one of the franchise’s worst losses in the divisional round. The Denver Broncos organization knows all too well the top spot in the playoffs can be the blessing it’s intended, or a terrible curse. Like any other “win or go home” tournament, so much of the NFL playoffs is about matchups, and gaining a path of least resistance.
Being a top seed seemingly provides a team with that clearer path to the final round. Seemingly. The problem is that in the modern NFL, often the hottest team is one who has battled its way into the tournament and brings with it the momentum, focus, and confidence to keep grinding away.
As the top-seed, the Broncos can’t play the Houston Texans, leaving the Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Indianapolis Colts as potential opponents. Any team can win on a given day, and there certainly isn’t such a thing as a guaranteed victory in the NFL playoffs, but here are my cases for and against wanting to see each of the three come to Denver on Jan. 12.
Pros: The Broncos already beat the Ravens…soundly…in Baltimore. Ray Rice and the Ravens’ running attach was non-existent. The Denver defense kept Joe Flacco flustered throughout the game, and forced him into critical mistakes, one of which basically ended the game just before halftime.
Cons: The Ravens are getting slightly healthier with Ray Lewis expected back for the Wild Card game…though his retirement announcement earlier this week could motivate those around him to “keep winning to prolong Ray’s career.” Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell also has some, albeit still not a lot, more experience as the play caller than he did when the team’s met several weeks ago. While the Broncos kept Rice at bay in the first meeting, he’s too good a player to assume he’d be just as ineffective if he had a second crack at Denver. The Ravens also have a strong return game on special teams which can be an ultimate weapon in January road games.
Pros: Like Baltimore, the Broncos know this team as Denver beat Cincinnati team during the regular season. The Bengals have only one true offensive weapon in A.J. Green, and second-year quarterback Andy Dalton has played well, but has yet to emerge as an elite prospect. The Bengals are strong up front, but the secondary didn’t fair well against the Broncos passing game, which by all accounts has gotten even sharper since that meeting. Also, in the last meeting the Bengals were coming off a bye week which provided them extra time to prepare while this matchup would give Denver the rest and edge.
Cons: Unlike Baltimore, the Bengals gave Denver a game. Cincinnati has played well against the run all season and has potentially the best interior pass rusher in the league in Geno Atkins. While the Bengals offense is somewhat one dimensional with the Dalton to Green connection, it’s a dimension that still remains difficult to defend. The Bengals have been solidly good all season, and have the ability to get great if a few supplemental pieces can contribute more regularly.
Pros: This is the lone AFC playoff team the Broncos didn’t play in 2012. The Colts are also the paradox team Denver was last season; obtaining a record far better than the team’s negative point differential would suggest. Quarterback Andrew Luck has been impressive, but has also made the frequent hallmark mistakes of a rookie QB in a true pro-style offense. The Colts’ defense has been good enough when needed as late, but is far from an outfit that appears positioned to frustrate an elite quarterback like Manning.
Cons: Indianapolis could very well be that momentum team. The Colts have fought all season, winning games they probably shouldn’t have, and uniting with a bona fide “nobody believes in us” cause. Luck has proven he can find a way to win close games, and the team as a whole seems to find big plays when needed. It’s difficult to explain exactly how the Colts win games, but they do. Teams like that are difficult to scheme against. While the Colts would be getting their first in-person look at Denver, the Broncos would also be getting there’s and there’s something to be said for going with the devil you know.