If a game like Sunday’s seems familiar to you, there’s good reason: the Broncos were in this exact same situation just under two years ago.
On Jan. 2, 2005, Denver needed a win over the Indianapolis Colts to cement an AFC wild-card spot that just a week earlier was out of the Broncos’ grasp without some help from other teams. The Broncos got it from the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans, who defeated the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively, in Week 16 to set Denver up in a win-or-else scenario for the year’s final game.
The Broncos won, 33-14. Not unusual, really, since the Broncos have fared well in the last decade when a playoff spot or seeding is on the line in the regular-season finale — just like it will be on Sunday, when a win gets the Broncos into the postseason as the No. 5 seed.
Denver won a 1997 game against San Diego when the team was playing for a wild-card home game, beating the Chargers 38-3 to wrap up the No. 4 seed. A loss to the Chargers would have placed the Broncos in a tie at 11-5 with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who would have won the tiebreaker based upon a superior conference record. That wasn’t the case, and the Broncos instead hosted the Jaguars and routed them en route to a world championship.
Three years later, the San Francisco 49ers came to Denver for what turned out to be the last game at Mile High Stadium. That wasn’t known at the time, as the Broncos could still have claimed the AFC West with a win and an Oakland Raiders loss one day later. Denver took care of its portion of the equation, dominating the 49ers 38-9. A day later, Oakland romped over the Carolina Panthers, giving the Raiders the division title; an Oakland loss would have made the Broncos division champions by virtue of a head-to-head sweep.
In 2002, the Broncos prepared all week as though they would be playing a meaningful season-ending duel against the Arizona Cardinals. But an early-afternoon win by the Cleveland Browns over the Atlanta Falcons eliminated the Broncos before kickoff. Having prepared as though the stakes would be much higher, the Broncos still rolled past Arizona 37-7 to seal a winning season — the first of an ongoing streak of five in succession.
All the Broncos have to do is repeat recent history, and a fourth consecutive playoff appearance is theirs. If Denver can accomplish that feat, it would make them one of only four teams in the league with ongoing postseason streaks of that magnitude. Indianapolis has a five-year run in progress, while Seattle and New England each have four consecutive playoff appearances, having already punched their cards to this year’s January dance.
But if the Broncos repeat history, they would also be making a little of their own. A win would give the team three consecutive wins in regular-season finales, something the Broncos have never accomplished.