By Sunday afternoon, however, that dream was officially over as Denver was mathematically eliminated from the postseason.
Now, entering Week 16, the focus has drastically changed. It’s all about the future, and that means all eyes are on the draft.
With two games left to play, Denver currently owns the 14th overall pick. But if things shake their way — depending on how you look at it — Denver can quickly climb the draft board.
Here are the picks Denver could end up with at the end of the season and what needs to happen.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Frankly, a lot.
Fifteen picks in the draft, to be exact.
The highest possible pick Denver can obtain is No. 5 — the same pick they had last year in which they landed pass-rushing sensation Bradley Chubb.
However, they can also fall and end up with the No. 20-overall pick — the final spot for non-playoff teams.
Let us examine.
DRAFT ORDER ENTERING WEEK 16
No. 1 Arizona Cardinals (3-11)
No. 2 Oakland Raiders (3-11)
No. 3 San Francisco 49ers (4-10)
No. 4 New York Jets (4-10)
No. 5 Jacksonville Jaguars (4-10)
No. 6 Detroit Lions (5-9)
No. 7 Atlanta Falcons (5-9)
No. 8 New York Giants (5-9)
No. 9 Buffalo Bills (5-9)
No. 10 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-9)
No. 11 Green Bay Packers (5-8-1)
No. 12 Carolina Panthers (6-8)
No. 13 Cincinnati Bengals (6-8)
No. 14 Denver Broncos (6-8)
No. 15 Cleveland Browns (6-7-1)
No. 16 Washington Redskins (7-7)
No. 17 Miami Dolphins (7-7)
No. 18 Philadelphia Eagles (7-7)
No. 19 Indianapolis Colts (8-6)
No. 20 Tennessee Titans (8-6)
HOW TO LAND No. 5
The road to five is tough.
If the Broncos take care of business, aka lose the final two games, they’ll still need substantial help.
All of the following teams must win out:
New York Giants
Additionally, the following teams must win at least one game:
Green Bay (Specifically the Packers must lose to the Lions and beats the Jets)
Denver and Cincinnati are currently tied for the first tiebreaker, strength of schedule, but the Bengals own, and will own, the second tiebreaker. It’s possible Denver can own the first tiebreaker over the Bengals, but if Denver wants to not have it come down to chance, the Bengals will need to win one game.
There is a slim chance the Broncos would own the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker over the Falcons and Giants. If that is the case, Denver would only need the Falcons and Giants to win one game, but the odds are not in the Broncos’ favor of them owning that tiebreaker. Thus, Denver likely need both teams to win out.
Even if all of this happens, Denver will still need the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker to fall their way with Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers are close enough in that category where the Broncos could accomplish this. Or, Tampa Bay could win out to avoid this.
HOW TO LAND No. 20
If the Broncos take care of business the other way and win out, they’ll need the following to happen to have the worst pick among non-playoff teams.
Baltimore must lose out
Additionally, the following teams must lose at least one game:
Tennessee or Indianapolis must make the playoffs
The team that loses their Week 17 showdown must also lose in Week 16
Pittsburgh must make the playoffs
Thought the season was hard? This news will only make it tougher to swallow.
Not only did Denver play one of the toughest schedules in the league, despite finishing 5-11 last year, but their difficult strength of schedule is likely to come back to haunt them again with their place in the draft.
The draft order is determined by the team’s record at the end of the season, with the team with the worst record picking first.
If, however, multiple teams have the same record, the first tiebreaker is "strength of schedule." The team with the more difficult strength of schedule picks behind the team with the easier strength of schedule.
As it currently stands, Denver would only “win” the strength-of-schedule tiebreaker with Jacksonville and Oakland. The Broncos cannot tie the Raiders, so essentially Denver will likely only get the tiebreaker against the Jaguars among teams that will miss the playoffs.
A tough schedule just got tougher.
HOW IT COULD SHAKE OUT
As laid out above, it’s possible for Denver to have a top-five pick for a second year in a row. It’s also possible for the Broncos to land the worst pick among non-playoff teams.
The reality is they’ll likely be closer to where they currently stand at 14.
The realistic window for Denver is somewhere in the mid-to-low teens.
WHAT IT MEANS
As mentioned above, a lot is at stake.
While Vance Joseph and his players admittedly, and understandably, want to win the final two games, that could drastically impact the type of player John Elway gets to select in the first round in April. Not to mention all of the following rounds.
In that scenario, if Denver landed the No. 5 overall pick, they would have their choice of any non-defensive lineman in the draft.
Most importantly, Elway and Co. would get their No. 1 choice at quarterback, regardless of if they go this route.
If, however, Denver falls closer to 20, they will be far out of the running for a top quarterback. While there’s still plenty of talent later in the first round, winning the final two games will only make it more difficult on the Broncos to land the best player.
CHUBB VS. BOLLES
Look no further than the Broncos themselves to see the drastic difference the No. 5 overall pick and No. 20 overall pick can be.
Last year, the Broncos selected Chubb at No. 5.
Just the year before that, they drafted Garett Bolles with the No. 20 overall pick.
Through nearly his first two seasons in the NFL, Bolles has been near the top of the league in sacks allowed and penalties.
On the other hand, Chubb, a top-five pick, was selected as a Pro Bowl alternate his first year in the league and is only 2.5 sacks away from breaking the all-time record for sacks by a rookie.