The Broncos earned their first playoff berth since the 2005 season by virtue of coming out on top of the most closely contested division in the NFL this season.
Three teams finished tied atop the AFC West with 8-8 records and the fourth place team, Kansas City, came in just one game back at 7-9. No other division had fewer than four games separate the top from the bottom.
Denver, Oakland and San Diego were so even-matched throughout the season that it took the third tiebreaker to determine a division champ. With three teams tied, the NFL’s initial tiebreaker is head-to-head record amongst the tied teams. Every team in the division split its games against the other three AFC west clubs, so it was on to the next tiebreaker.
Tiebreaker No. 2 is the win-loss percentage withing division games. Since all four teams finished 3-3 in divisional play, the process moved on to tiebreaker No. 3, which is win-loss percentage in games against common opponents.
Each AFC West team played the four clubs in the NFC North (Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota) and the four members of the AFC East (Buffalo, Miami, New England and N.Y. Jets). Those eight games, along with six AFC West games that each team had in common added up to 14 common opponents between Denver, Oakland and San Diego.
This is the tiebreaker that gave the Broncos the AFC West after the team finished one game better than Oakland and San Diego in this comparison. Denver posted a 7-7 record to Oakland’s and San Diego’s 6-8.
If you are trying to pinpoint specific games that factored into the team’s division title more than others, Denver’s wins over Miami, Chicago and the New York Jets were the difference makers in this tiebreaker. Those also happened to be three of the Broncos’ most improbable victories of the year.
The Broncos and Raiders fared the same against every one of their common opponents with the exception of the Dolphins. Denver overcame a 15-0 deficit late in the fourth quarter to come away with an 18-15 overtime victory, while Oakland lost to Miami 34-14.
Denver earned the advantage over San Diego with wins over Chicago and the New York Jets — both of whom defeated the Chargers. San Diego did come out on top of Buffalo, who Denver lost to, but the wins over the Bears and Jets gave the Broncos a one-game edge in this comparison. Both of those wins also saw Denver overcome late deficits to earn the victories.
Below is a game-by-game comparison of how the three teams fared against common opponents:
Denver: San Diego and Oakland each went 1-1 against the Broncos.
Oakland: Denver and San Diego each went 1-1 against the Raiders.
San Diego: Denver and Oakland each went 1-1 against the Chargers.
Kansas City: Denver, San Diego and Oakland each went 1-1 against the Chiefs.
Chicago: Denver won 13-10, Oakland won 25-20, San Diego lost 31-20.
Detroit: Denver lost 45-10, Oakland lost 28-17 and San Diego lost 38-10.
Green Bay: Denver lost 49-23, Oakland lost 46-16 and San Diego lost 45-38.
Minnesota: Denver won 35-32, Oakland won 27-21 and San Diego won 24-17.
Buffalo: Denver lost 40-13, Oakland lost 38-35 and San Diego won 37-10.
Miami: Denver won 18-15, Oakland lost 34-14, San Diego won 26-16.
New England: Denver lost 41-21, Oakland lost 31-19 and San Diego lost 35-21.
New York Jets: Denver won 17-13, Oakland won 34-24 and San Diego lost 23-20.