AFC West: Broncos Can Taste Playoffs

(Sports Network) - They can't blow it now, can they?

After Sunday's hard-fought 24-17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos are now tantalizingly close to making good on head coach Mike Shanahan's preseason guarantee that they would be a playoff team in 2008.

Now 8-5, Denver remains three games ahead of 5-8 San Diego in the AFC West. If one of four things happens over the next two weeks - Broncos win at Carolina, Chargers loss at Kansas City, Broncos win at home against Buffalo, or Chargers loss at Tampa Bay - Shanahan and company will avoid having to play the Bolts for all the division marbles at Qualcomm Stadium in Week 17.

Though there is a real chance San Diego will head into Week 16 with its playoff hopes still intact, the notion of the Broncos losing at home to the Bills while the Chargers beat playoff-hungry Tampa Bay (currently undefeated at home) on the same day seems quite a bit far-fetched.

Which means it's pretty much a done deal that Denver's playoff drought will end at two seasons. And while that's something, the Broncos aren't going to be anyone's pick to make a Super Bowl run in January.

There can be little argument with the fact that the Broncos have benefited from playing in the weakest division in football, as evidenced by the fact that they are the only 8-5 team in the league that isn't fighting for its playoff life at the moment.

And while a selection of Denver's wins can be called impressive (at the Jets, at Atlanta, at home against the Bucs), there have been enough truly vexing losses (double-digit defeats to the Chiefs and Raiders, a home loss to the currently 4-9 Jaguars, a 41-7 throttling at New England) to suggest that this Broncos team isn't going to be nearly consistent enough to make a meaningful run.

Though there are undoubtedly things that this team does well, most notably passing the football, you'll also find the Broncos ranked near the bottom of most meaningful defensive categories.

And the running game remains a huge question mark, as yet another rusher - Peyton Hillis (torn hamstring) - hit season-ending injured reserve this week to push the offense a bit further into the pass-happy stratosphere.

Anyone think Jay Cutler will be able to string together 400-yard passing days in an AFC playoff bracket where New York, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Baltimore join Denver as the most likely host cities in January?

Then, of course, the fact that the Broncos will be a likely playoff underdog in the first round warrants acknowledgment. Whether Denver settles into the No. 4 seed as expected or is able to vault the AFC East winner into the No. 3 hole, someone like the Steelers (10-3), Colts (9-4), or Ravens (9-4) could end up visiting Invesco Field at Mile High on the first weekend in January.

So, while winning the AFC West is certainly better than not winning it, Shanahan and his team are going to have a difficult time countering the belief that they will be one-and-done come the postseason.

Still, the head coach appears confident that the team could see its Q Rating jump in the next three weeks.

"I just talk about playing our best football in December," said Shanahan on Monday. "If you want to do something once you get to the playoffs you have to be playing your best football in December so you can do something about it. You can't just be happy to get to the playoffs. You want to do something once you get there. Hopefully, we can keep getting better."

"The first thing you want to do is play hard and we have played extremely hard. That is something we are very proud of, but then you have to find a way to win. You have to try and make plays when it counts and we were able to do that Sunday in a very competitive game. I am very proud of the way they played, and hopefully we can keep that going."

CHARGERS: As mentioned, the Chargers have earned the ability to soldier on for one more week in the postseason race, thanks in part to a well-timed 34-7 home win over the Oakland Raiders last Thursday.

San Diego rushed for 148 yards in the game, including 91 on 25 carries for LaDainian Tomlinson, while Philip Rivers completed half of his 10 pass connections on the night to Vincent Jackson (5 receptions, 148 yards, 1 TD).

The much-maligned defense that had struggled against the Colts and Falcons in recent weeks got a gift in the form of JaMarcus Russell, Andrew Walter, and the Raiders offense, which could muster just nine first downs and turned the ball over four times. Oakland's only touchdown of the night came on a 92-yard kickoff return from Justin Miller late in the second quarter.

Not many 5-8 teams can say their wins have come by an average margin of 15.4 points, but that is exactly the case for the Chargers, who have shown their potential in blowout wins of not only the Raiders but two playoff hopefuls - the Jets (48-29) and Patriots (30-10) - earlier in the year.

Meanwhile, San Diego's eight losses have come by a total of 34 points, an average of 4.3 per defeat, with none more decisive than the nine-point loss to the Bills that the team suffered in Buffalo in mid-October.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the Chargers' play will likely keep them out of the playoff fray, though the team has vowed to keep working toward their postseason goal.

"Regardless of what happens with Denver, which we can't control, we are going to keep playing hard," said Rivers in the wake of the Oakland win. "We are going to play with the same intensity, same passion. It was good to get a win and at least keep the shot alive of playing in January."

CHIEFS: Speaking of horseshoes and hand grenades, the Chiefs encountered yet another close setback in their seven-point defeat at Denver on Sunday, a loss that kept Kansas City from what would have been its first home-and-home sweep of the hated Broncos since 1999.

A Kansas City offense that had put up several encouraging results of late sputtered a bit against the Broncos, managing just 14 first downs and 260 yards.

Part of the problem for Tyler Thigpen (17-of-32 passing, 187 yards, 1 TD) and his attack was a lack of time with the ball, as the Denver offense racked up 27 first downs and held the football for over 36 minutes on the day, including a time-sapping final drive, consuming the final 4:35, that failed to allow Kansas City a shot to tie the game.

"In the second half, it was on us," said head coach Herm Edwards. "They put points on the board, we didn't. When they put ten points on the board, in the second half, that was the football game. We got in position a couple times, offensively, but couldn't put any points on the board. The last drive is what killed us, because we went backwards and they got some points out of that. Defensively, we didn't get off the field on third down. They did a good job making third downs on us."

Four of the Chiefs' last six losses have come by seven points or fewer, which shows that the young team is competing but not quite ready to deliver wins.

"It's very good for us a team; we're moving in the right direction," said Kansas City rookie corner Maurice Leggett, who notched an interception return for a touchdown against the Broncos. "It's really making us closer and making us believe in each other. Now we just have to move on to next week and focus on San Diego."

RAIDERS: With just three games remaining in another lost season, the 3-10 Raiders need to see some progress as they play out the string.

And, no area of the team will be under more scrutiny than the quarterback position, where JaMarcus Russell' performance against the Patriots, Texans, and Buccaneers will likely help to determine Oakland's offseason approach to the depth chart at QB.

If Russell performs well, the Raiders will likely head into 2009 with the former No. 1 overall pick as the unquestioned starter. If he continues to struggle, the club might seek to target a veteran signal-caller who will push him for starting duties heading into next year.

The LSU product posted a typical outing in last Thursday's loss to the Chargers, completing 9-of-13 passes for 68 yards but also committing three turnovers (two INT, one fumble) before being carted off with an ankle injury.

Russell is expected to be in the lineup this week when New England visits Oakland, and will be trying to prop up an attack that ranks last in the league in passing offense (137.2 yards per game) and touchdown passes (7), among other offensive categories.

Clearly, according to interim head coach Tom Cable, the time is now for Russell.

"I want to get him back on pace to where he was before the second half against Kansas City [in Week 13]," said Cable of Russell on Monday. "Making improvement, being on time, cutting it loose. Good management, good tempo and the speed of play. Getting back in that progressive state.

"I think it is important for him and for the whole team to continue to push forward and make some improvement here. Specific to him, his growth is so important to the future, I think it is paramount he have three great weeks of preparation and performance as well."

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