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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Not even one month ago, the Broncos were in the thick of a playoff push.
Perched at 6-6, Denver was only one game out of the playoffs with their easiest stretch of the season ahead of them — facing the likes of the losing 49ers, Browns and Raiders.
Then, at the time, the unthinkable happened.
Denver lost every single game.
And to put salt in the wound, if they would have taken care of business and beat three teams with losing records to extend what was then a three-game winning streak to six games, the Broncos would be playing to make the playoffs this Sunday at home against the Chargers.
Before their downfall, if the Broncos took care of their own business and won out, Denver needed one of three things to happen in order for them to make the playoffs. They either needed the Steelers or Ravens to lose two of their remaining four games or the Chargers to lose three.
Thanks to the Raiders and Saints, the Steelers did, in fact, drop two of their last three games, meaning if the Broncos had beat three bad teams, this Sunday would be the most meaningful football game out there.
Clearly, that didn’t happen.
And after blowing a massive opportunity to make an improbable playoff push, the Broncos did what needed to be done.
After the clock struck zero in Santa Clara in Week 14, and knocked Denver to 6-7, the rest of the season unfolded perfectly.
With hindsight being 20/20 — and in this case, there certainly is that luxury — the Broncos played their cards just right, although it certainly wasn’t on purpose.
Once Denver picked up their seventh loss of the season, the odds were too stacked against them. While there was a chance they could make the playoffs finishing 9-7 at the time, the odds proved to be too great even if they had won their final three games.
Entering Week 17, Denver still wouldn’t be playing for the playoffs on Sunday even if they had won their last two games and were sitting at 8-7.
While it would have been beneficial for Vance Joseph, his coaching staff and countless players to pick up an extra win or two down the stretch, it wouldn’t have benefited the Broncos organization. In fact, it would have only been detrimental to their future.
By losing the last three games, Denver has gone from fighting for the last non-playoff pick in the 2019 NFL Draft (No. 20 overall) to the seriously pushing for a top 10 pick.
As it stands, entering Week 17, Denver holds the No. 12-overall pick, moving two spots up in the draft after losing to the Raiders on Christmas Eve.
Depending on how things shake out in Week 17, the Broncos could be drafting anywhere from the seventh overall pick in the draft to the 16th overall pick.
A win or two against the Browns, Raiders or Chargers would have catapulted the Broncos up in the standings and further away from the top of the draft board. All for what?
To extend mediocrity?
To just miss the playoffs instead of simply miss the playoffs?
To build momentum into next year even when it is nearly certain there will be sweeping changes?
To avoid snapping a purely sentimental streak of not suffering back-to-back losing seasons since 1972?
The difference between the seventh-overall pick and 20th are drastic, too.
Just last year the Bills grabbed their potential franchise quarterback Josh Allen at seven.
At No. 20, the Lions took center Frank Ragnow.
While Ragnow has been an instant starter in Detroit, there’s no debating which player has a higher chance of drastically turning around their respective organization.
After Case Keenum posted the fifth-worst QBR and fourth-worst passer rating, among qualified quarterbacks, through 16 weeks of the season, John Elway could certainly be looking for his next franchise quarterback come April’s draft. The way this season has ended will only help him in that quest.
Dropping four-straight games wasn’t in the cards.
Missing the playoffs wasn’t in the cards.
But after dropping an incredible opportunity in Week 14 at the hands of the 49ers, the Broncos season is ending as best it can for the team moving forward.