AFC Playoff Preview: Who Can Beat The Broncos, And How Would They Do It?

  • Matt Rudnitsky

Philip Rivers Tom Brady

The NFL playoffs are here. I would like to preview them. I hope you read these predictions, and discuss them with me. Let’s start with the AFC, because “A” comes before “N,” even after “C.”

What do the odds say?

Via, here are the odds for each team to win the AFC and make it to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York Jersey.

Denver Broncos: -145
New England Patriots: +350
Cincinnati Bengals: +750
Indianapolis Colts: +1375
Kansas City Chiefs: +1500
San Diego Chargers: +1800

… but what about in terms of percentages?

(Here are the implied percentages, heavily approximated, because I was struggling to do the exact math, even though I used to be good at math. This is what blogging does to your brain. They all are definitely no more than a few percentage points off, at most.)

Denver Broncos: 56%
New England Patriots: 19%
Cincinnati Bengals: 10%
Indianapolis Colts: 6%
Kansas City Chiefs: 5.5%
San Diego Chargers: 5%

Home-field advantage is huge. Someone will have to beat Denver, in Denver. As you can see, the chances are reasonable, but pretty low. Denver has only lost three games at home with Peyton Manning under center. Once, early last year, to Houston (when they were good), then in the playoffs to Baltimore, then a few weeks ago vs. San Diego. They have been dominant at home, mostly.

But are the odds accurate?

People like to say dumb things like “VEGAS IS UNDEFEATED” when games occasionally end precisely on point spreads, but that’s an incredibly misguided statement. For one, “Vegas” isn’t the only place setting odds. Respected offshore books like Pinnacle are the market leaders. Not Vegas. And oddsmakers aren’t trying to guess scores, they’re trying to make money. The betting market is… a market. It moves based on money, perception, varying interests… lots of things. The prices reflect what the market is saying. It’s not perfect.

While I am no expert, I am not clueless. I made money (HYPOTHETICALLY, IF I WOULD DO SUCH A HORRIBLE THING) betting on football this season. It happened. And because the few long-term winning NFL bettors would never disclose their fancy mathematical models publicly, checking out a random dude’s preview is about the best you can do. While I’m no expert; I’m confident I’m more of an expert than the uninformed people that call themselves experts.

The Broncos will play the Chargers, Colts or Chiefs in the second round. Then, the Patriots, Bengals, Chargers, Colts or Chiefs.

The Broncos will be clear favorites over every single team. There is no question about that. My semi-educated, knee-jerk guesses would be:

Patriots vs. Broncos -5.5
Bengals vs. Broncos -6.5/7
Chiefs vs. Broncos -8
Colts vs. Broncos -8.5
Chargers vs. Broncos -9.5

Those are just guesses, but they shouldn’t be too far off. (I think.) And I think they’re pretty fair. I’ll be fairly surprised if anyone beats the Broncos. I can tell you that there’s no chance I’d bet on Andy Dalton on the road, in Denver.

Still, it’s dangerous to say things like “I don’t think Denver will lose,” because anything can happen. This is the NFL. You’re playing the odds. What would it take to beat Denver?

Here are the teams that have kept up with Denver, or have come sorta close.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles lost to the Broncos 52-20. So… why am I mentioning them? They moved the ball well. They averaged 6.5 yards per play. The Broncos averaged 6.6. The issue was that the Broncos were 5-for-5 in the red zone. The Eagles were 2-for-5. And the Broncos got a Trindon Holliday return TD, and a blocked punt for a TD. The Eagles didn’t play well enough to win, but they showed how it could be done. (By having a really dynamic offense. None of these teams move the ball as well as the Eagles do.)

Dallas Cowboys: You know the story. Cowboys lose, 51-48, keep up all game, lose on a Tony Romo INT. The Cowboys put up 9.7 yards per play(!), and ran the ball just 14 times. Both Philly and Dallas had tons of success through the air, but Dallas threw more, and did better.

Indianapolis Colts: The Colts beat the Broncos. It was at home… but still. Impressive. They had surprising success pressuring Manning, and despite being outgained, they won due to the pressure, which helped them win the turnover battle, 3-1. On offense, they actually didn’t have as much success as you’d think. 5.6 yards per passing attempt and 213 yards is not very good.

San Diego Chargers: As I’ve pointed out numerous times in my betting column, the Chargers are first in the NFL in time of possession, and they seem to have shown the best recipe to beating the Broncos: Keep Peyton Manning off the field. The Chargers have sat in dead-last in defensive DVOA in the NFL for much of the season, but they mask their struggles by keeping that unit off the field. Philip Rivers was good in both games vs. the Broncos (a win and a loss), but in the win, it was the 44 clock-eating rushing carries that were the game-defining stat.

It seems the recipe includes one or more of these tasty ingredients:

Time of possession.
Pressure on Peyton.
Romo-esque gunslinging.

The Broncos haven’t really faced an elite pass defense, so maybe the Bengals can buck the trend and stop them. The stats show that the Broncos rack up points at home vs. anyone, but if any team has a shot of stopping them there, it’s the Bengals. Still, I don’t trust them. GINGER QB ON THE ROAD. The one thing they really have working for them is their ginger-zone offense, where they score a TD on a ridiculous 73.91% of appearances (2nd in the NFL). That’s absurd, though slightly less-absurd than the Broncos’ 76.12% mark, especially when you realize that Denver makes more red-zone appearances per game than any other team, too (4.2, as opposed to the Bengals 22nd-ranked mark of 2.9).

This is what is so tough about the Broncos. They are efficient and explosive. They are first in offensive DVOA. They are first in offensive yards per play. They are second in third-down conversion rate. They are first in red-zone offense, as I just told you. They are so damn good on offense I can’t take it, and they’re better at home.

And if you’re wondering about their defense, it’s not that bad, though Von Miller’s absence is worrisome. They’re 16th in yards per play allowed, and 15th in defensive DVOA. The secondary is weak, but passable, given their awesomeness on offense.

The only real worry is the whole “Peyton is bad in the cold thing,” and while this study doesn’t really prove that Peyton is good in the cold, it does suggest that this narrative probably didn’t have reason to exist in the first place.

I think it’s pretty clear that San Diego is the worst matchup for Denver. But, they’re also probably the worst team in the playoffs, because of their 32nd-ranked defense in DVOA. I don’t think any team has a great shot at an upset, but I think the Chargers, if their defense weirdly comes to play like they did in their win vs. the Broncos, have the best shot. If that makes sense. But I don’t think that will happen. I don’t know how it did the first time.

Which just leaves the Bengals and Pats as the best shots, and I really don’t think they have a great shot on the road.


If I’m being honest, I don’t like any bets in the AFC. All of my futures bets to win the Super Bowl are from the NFC (Philly at 90/1, Seattle at 12/1, Packers at 25/1), and I like the NFC infinitely better than I do the AFC. I don’t think any of the futures odds show value. If I had to pick, I would take the Broncos at -145, though there’s no evidence that would be a better option than betting on their moneyline in the first game and rolling over your winnings. It would depend on upsets.

The only bets I could consider are Broncos -145, or betting the Chargers moneyline vs. the Bengals (which I don’t really like), then rolling over your winnings vs. the Broncos.


Sorry for the lack of balls. I have them; they’re just hard to see. Here are my predictions, which are mainly just dart-throws, if I’m being honest.

Bengals over Chargers.
Chiefs over Colts.
Bengals over Patriots.
Broncos over Chiefs.
Broncos over Bengals.

Boom. Give your own predictions and/or bets below, or hit me up on Twitter. I would love to hear from you, friend.