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Broncos playoff picture: 5 teams vying for final 2 AFC playoff spots

Broncos have the second-toughest remaining schedule. Bengals have the toughest. Those two teams meet Sunday in Denver.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — After matching its longest playoff drought of the past 50 years, the Denver Broncos haven’t exactly sailed into contention this year.

Not that they needed to in a year when most teams are dog-paddling.

But here the Broncos are, among the five AFC teams with a 7-6 record and battling for the final two playoff spots with four games to go.

"I feel like this is the first true time we’ve been in the mix since I’ve been here," outside linebacker Bradley Chubb, a first-round draft pick in 2018, said Monday. "I feel like everyone in the locker room feels that same way. We’re pretty much going to have a four-game playoff run before the playoffs. We know every game counts."

Two of those 7-6 teams meet Sunday at Empower Field at Mile High, where the up-and-down Broncos meet the equally inconsistent Cincinnati Bengals.

"It’s a big game, there’s no denying that, for them and for us," said Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. "And our whole focus will be to win this game."

It’s huge in the sense the loser will instantly drop to playoff longshot. The Bengals have the toughest remaining schedule among the five teams at 7-6 while the Broncos have the second-most difficult remaining schedule. So even the winner will have work to do to get in. But the game’s loser will be in serious trouble.

Remaining schedules for the AFC teams in the playoff hunt:

1. Bills (7-6)

Panthers 5-8

Patriots 9-4

Falcons 6-7

Jets 3-10

4 opponents: 23-29

2. Colts (7-6)

Patriots 9-4

*Cardinals 10-2

Raiders 6-7

Jaguars 2-11

4 opponents: 27-24 (Cards play 13th game tonight)

3. Browns (7-6)

Raiders 6-7

Packers 10-3

Steelers 6-6-1

Bengals 7-6

4 opponents: 29-22-1 

4. Broncos (7-6)

Bengals 7-6

Raiders 6-7

Chargers 8-5

Chiefs 9-4

4 opponents: 30-22

5. Bengals (7-6)

Broncos 7-6

Ravens 8-5

Chiefs 9-4

Browns 7-6

4 opponents: 31-21

There are misleading aspects to the strength of schedule component. The Ravens, whom the  Bengals play the following week, are 8-5 but how strong will they be if injured quarterback Lamar Jackson can’t play or his talent is running skill is significantly diminished?

The Colts have a relatively easy remaining schedule based on overall record but one opponent, the 2-11 Jaguars, drag that number down while Indianapolis’ next two opponents, New England and Arizona, are as tough as it gets.

And say the Chiefs win their next three games, clinch the No. 1 seed and don’t play Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce in game 17 at Empower Field? The Broncos can dream can’t they?

That’s just it. At the very least, the Broncos can still dream and here it is mid-December.

"I think it’s good for us, the team, the players," Fangio said. "It’s good for our fans. I think it’s good for you guys to cover something with a little more pop to it. But we’ve got to be one game at a time."

The Broncos have missed the postseason the previous five seasons, a skid they’ve only matched once before in the past half-century – from 2006-10, the years before Tebow and Manning. Miss the playoffs again and the Broncos will have their longest postseason drought since before their Orange Crush years. It’s an absence that seemingly has the Broncos hungry to fill.

"It feels different," Chubb said. "Guys coming in at 10 o’clock, the first lift option we’ve got. Trying to get it in, watch the film. We had Victory Monday but we beat the Lions, now we’ve got to do it again to the Bengals. Everybody’s been locked in. It’s been fun to see. The locker room yesterday was ecstatic but we all knew we had to get right back to work."

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