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One more for the road. —Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Assessing the Broncos’ Playoff Prospects

As the team's season of "Huh?" ends with a top seed, where they'll go from here is anyone's guess.

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We reporters spend our days searching for great stories, and it’s tough to imagine a more compelling one than a left-for-dead Hall of Fame quarterback rising above his injuries and ineffectiveness to deliver his team an improbable Super Bowl victory.

That might be the exact story we’re recounting five weeks from now—but only the most blindly optimistic Broncos fan would bet the house on it.

At various times during this confounding season the team has looked like everything from a sure playoff power to a massive disappointment; indeed, heading into Sunday’s games it was mathematically possible for the Broncos to miss the playoffs altogether after starting the season 7–1.

Instead, they’re the AFC’s number-one seed, a result on which I wouldn’t have bet a nickel a week, a month, or half a season ago.

Consider: This 12–4 squad won nine of its games by a touchdown or less, squeaking by seemingly every week thanks to some late-game turning point. Many times this was due to its defense—the one and only part of the roster that has been inarguably exceptional all year.

Then again, their losses were just as weird. In the past few weeks the Broncos blew a two-TD lead in Pittsburgh and somehow dropped a home game to a Raiders team that gained a total of 126 yards. The season-long disparity between their defensive dominance and offensive putridity was so great that there were mumblings of locker room discord between the two units, a condition that almost always guarantees failure.

But wait, you might say, doesn’t defense win championships? It’s a common cliche, but it’s almost never true because most often, balance is what gets you the ring.

Which brings us to Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler. Until coach Gary Kubiak announces his decision—the Broncos don’t play again until January 17th, so there isn’t much of a rush—the sportsyak universe will be buzzing about which man should start the first playoff game.

It’s hard to imagine that it won’t be Manning. If he’s healthy, his resume speaks for itself. His various injuries this year could turn out to be a blessing because it gave Osweiler some much-needed seasoning. So if Manning gets hurt again or struggles—unfortunately, his playoff resume also speaks for itself—the kid would be good to go.

Either way, the road to Super Bowl 50 will feature potential encounters with the Steelers team that solved the Broncos’ D a few weeks ago, a Kansas City Chiefs outfit that would be on an 11-game winning streak, and of course, the Patriots, a team that fears no one, ever.

Few people expect Manning to be back in the orange and blue next year, and John Elway will have to decide this offseason whether to commit to Osweiler long term, so rarely has a simple playoff appearance meant so much to a seasoned contender’s long-term fortunes. There’s no point in making any predictions just yet in this unusually weird and unpredictable year, but what we can be certain of is that the longer some of these questions remain unanswered for the Broncos, the better their story will be.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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