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The AFC Playoff Blender

Who are the winners and losers in the aftermath of Thursday night's Broncos-Chargers game?

Well, while the bottom of the AFC playoff picture is wide open, things up top are pretty settled by now. Denver has got the first seed lock— … oh, is that the sound of Philip Rivers marching on fools? That certainly changes things. San Diego’s upset victory as 10-point underdogs in Denver on Thursday night shuffles the entire AFC playoff scenario and, with it, the shape of the league over the final three weeks of the season.

The ramifications of San Diego’s victory are naturally reverberating around the league right now, making winners and losers out of teams and players who spent Thursday night on the couch. Let’s run through the various aftershocks from last night’s game and see who fits into each category.

Losers: Denver Broncos. Even after losing to the Patriots in Week 12, Denver’s sweep of the Chiefs had left them with a pretty comfortable path to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. All Denver had to do was beat San Diego in its final home game of the regular season before finishing up with wins on the road at lowly Houston and Oakland. It wasn’t foolproof, but before the game, Football Outsiders left Denver with a 75.6 percent chance of finishing as the top seed in the AFC.

Now? That’s all out the window. At 11-3, Denver no longer controls its own destiny in terms of AFC home-field advantage. Instead …

Winners: New England Patriots. Somehow, despite coming off near-losses to the Texans and Browns and losing their second-best player for the year, it’s a triumphant time for the Patriots. They’re now in command of the AFC. At 10-3 and with the tiebreaker over the Broncos by virtue of that dramatic victory, the Patriots can clinch the top seed in the AFC and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by winning their final three games. Not bad for a team that could have possibly been stuck behind the Broncos and Bengals and left on the outside looking in for a playoff bye had it failed to recover that onside kick against Cleveland last week.

The Patriots aren’t blessed with the easiest of run-ins, but they don’t have an insurmountable task ahead of them, either. They have road trips to the two top contenders for the sixth spot in the AFC playoffs ahead of them, as they travel to face the Dolphins and Ravens before finishing at home against the Bills. The Denver loss also opens up some possibilities for another playoff contender …

Winners: Kansas City Chiefs. Kansas City was all but consigned to the fifth seed in the AFC after losing three consecutive games to its AFC West brethren. Now, the Chiefs have a modicum of hope. If they can beat Oakland on the road this week, they’ll be tied with the Broncos at 11-3, albeit without the tiebreaker in their favor. If Denver slips up over the final two weeks of the season and the Chiefs manage to win out, they would be the no. 2 seed, while the Broncos would drop all the way to five. It’s unlikely, especially since the Chiefs still have to play Indy and San Diego, but far more plausible than it was before Thursday night.

Losers: Denver’s creaky bones. There’s no longer any way the Broncos will get to rest their veterans in Week 17. That would have required Denver to win in Week 15 and Week 16 while the Patriots lost at least one game over that time frame. If that had happened, Denver would have been two games ahead of New England with one to go, allowing the Broncos to rest their stars in a would-be meaningless game at Oakland. Now, they’ll be stuck lining up their best players to ensure they end up getting a week off during the wild-card round.1

Winners/Losers: Oakland Raiders. It depends on how you look at it, I guess. If you’re a Raiders fan who wants to see Oakland win regardless of the circumstances, the Denver loss is crushing. The Raiders could have made it through the final three weeks with two matchups against teams that basically had little or nothing to play for, with the Chiefs on Sunday and the Broncos in Week 17. Now, both those teams have every reason to be highly motivated and give their best effort against the Raiders.

At the same time, that could very well be a long-term victory for the Raiders, who have nothing to play for in 2013 and are likely best served by losing as much as they can to ensure the best draft pick possible. Given that they also have to travel to San Diego to play the Chargers, there’s a good chance the Raiders lose out and finish 4-12. That should be enough to push them into the top six of the 2014 draft, which would give them an opportunity to draft one of the sub–Teddy Bridgewater options as their quarterback of the future.

Winner: Peyton Manning. Yes, somehow, this loss actually benefits Manning. By ensuring that the Broncos-Raiders game in Week 17 is a meaningful one, Manning actually has a better shot of breaking the single-season touchdown passes record currently held by Tom Brady. After throwing for two scores on Thursday night, Manning now has 47 on the season, leaving him three behind Brady with two games to go. All he’ll need to do to claim the record is throw at least two touchdown passes in each of those two remaining games, something he’s done in 13 of his 14 starts this year.

Losers: People who wanted to stop talking about Manning struggling in cold weather for a while. Sigh. To be fair, Manning’s numbers — 27-for-41, 289 yards, two touchdowns, one pick, a 92.4 passer rating — look better than his actual performance from Thursday. The Denver offense went missing for the second and third quarters, when its four possessions went for a total of 13 yards while producing just one first down. It was the first time since the loss to the Colts that the Broncos were forced to punt on four consecutive (non-kneeldown) possessions. Of course, this loss doesn’t fit the traditional “Manning freezes” ad-lib, since the game’s temperature at kickoff was 37 degrees, while the Manning arguments almost always revolve around his record and performance in games where the temperature is below 32 degrees.2 Manning’s numbers in the 20- to 40-degree range are just fine, thank you. And the Broncos just went out of their way to have Manning pad his numbers against Tennessee in a freezing game. This is what you get when you say naughty things and tell haters to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, Peyton. Eli would never do that.3

Winners: San Diego Chargers. Oh, hey, you guys, right! The bigger impact from this game is more about Denver losing than San Diego winning, but the Chargers definitely deserve credit for putting together their best game of the season after mostly being written off as irrelevant. The Chargers dominated this game on both sides of the line of scrimmage, with Ryan Mathews running for 127 yards on 29 carries, extending drive after drive with first downs. Rivers completed just 12 passes all day, but those 12 completions produced 10 first downs and two touchdowns.

The Chargers toe the line between underrated and flat-out weird. On one hand, they’ve been close in just about every single game this year; as NFL Network’s Gregg Rosenthal noted on Twitter, San Diego’s only loss by more than one score this year came at the hands of Oakland in the After Midnight Bowl. They’ve beaten four sure playoff teams: Indianapolis, Denver, Kansas City, and whoever wins the NFC East race between Dallas and Philadelphia, since the Chargers beat them both. They’ve also lost to the Raiders, Texans, and Washington.4 The Chargers are probably the sixth-best team in the AFC, but that’s split into half a season where they look like the third-best team in the conference and another half-season where they’re the 10th-best team in the AFC, and there’s no telling which version is going to show up from week to week.

The win obviously keeps San Diego’s postseason hopes alive, but at 7-7, they’re still not in great shape to compete. The Chargers lost to the Dolphins in Week 11, which leaves them well behind a key rival for the wild-card spot. Even if the Dolphins lose to the Patriots this week, they would be tied with San Diego at 7-7 and hold the tiebreaker. San Diego would also likely lose a tiebreaker with Baltimore, either through Baltimore’s superior conference record or better record in common matchups.

If the Chargers go 9-7, they need the Dolphins and Ravens — each currently 7-6 — to finish either 0-3 or 1-2 to end up with eight wins or fewer. The only other team that could catch a 9-7 Chargers squad would be the Jets, but San Diego would have the tiebreaker thanks to a superior record in the AFC. If the Chargers finish 8-8, they would have to hope the Dolphins and Ravens both go winless while fending off competition from the Jets, Titans, and Steelers. Altogether, even after this win, the odds aren’t great.

With that being said, the Chargers are showing a lot of promise for 2014. That young defense should be better next year, especially with a healthy season from Melvin Ingram — or any of their pass-rushers, for that matter — on the horizon. It also looks like rookie general manager Tom Telesco nailed his first draft, led by …

Winner: Keenan Allen. Winner as in “Offensive Rookie of the Year” winner. San Diego’s third-round pick was already playing better than any rookie on the offensive side of the football, but I fretted that he wouldn’t win the award because he played in the relative obscurity of San Diego and would get caught behind Eddie Lacy. Well, Lacy got hurt on a meaningless halftime draw last week in a play that should hamper him (or keep him out entirely) against the Cowboys this week, and Allen delivered a two-touchdown game in prime time against one of the best teams in football. Those were his only two catches of the game, but Allen is hardly lacking for numbers. After Malcom Floyd went out with a neck injury, Allen took over as a starter and has become Rivers’s favorite target. In 11 games since, Allen has produced 60 catches for 901 yards and seven touchdowns; over a full season, that would translate to an 87-1,311-10 campaign, which is just below what Dez Bryant5 did during his breakout year last season. Not bad for the eighth wide receiver to come off the board in last year’s draft.

Loser: Eddie Lacy. Don’t run halftime draws.

Winner: Bill Belichick. And speaking of awards, New England’s sudden ascension to the top spot in the AFC might be enough to earn Belichick some serious consideration as a Coach of the Year candidate. I still think Andy Reid will win, but given the injuries New England has had this season, it’s hard to argue that Belichick hasn’t done fine work. That would have gotten lost in the shuffle had New England merely emerged from the AFC as the winner of a subpar division, but if the Patriots hit 13-3 and come away with the top seed, Belichick might actually accrue some votes.

Loser: Mike McCoy. Well, sorta. McCoy deserves credit for the broader work he has done in building an excellent offense and revitalizing his veteran quarterback while piecing together a patchwork offensive line. As a rookie head coach, though, McCoy has shown some serious logic flaws in his in-game decision-making, a problem that reared its head again Thursday.

If you remember San Diego’s win over Indianapolis earlier in the season, McCoy passed up what would have been a game-sealing fourth-and-inches late in the contest to attempt a 50-yard field goal that would have made it a 10-point game, giving Andrew Luck great field position with a possible miss. It was clearly the wrong move, but kicker Nick Novak bailed out McCoy by hitting the field goal.

On Thursday, McCoy faced a roughly similar situation. His team faced a fourth-and-3 on the Denver 37-yard line with 5:50 to go and a seven-point lead. Going for it wasn’t quite as palatable, given the longer distance needed for the conversion and the fact that it wouldn’t have ended the game, but his team had been gashing Denver on the ground and had plenty of ways to pick up the three yards. McCoy also could have chosen to kick a field goal again, but he strangely passed. Novak’s kick would have been from 54 yards, but it was also in Denver, where the thin air makes longer field goals a much easier proposition. Instead, bizarrely, McCoy punted the ball away to a Hall of Fame quarterback in a one-score game. The Advanced NFL Stats model suggests that punting was the worst option of the three, and that’s without knowing the game was in Denver and that the Chargers were punting to Manning.

The punt did work, I guess. It ended up pinning Denver on its own 3-yard line, but pass to Montee Ball to the Denver 14 and then Manning threw an interception that basically sealed the game. In any case, regardless of the outcome, McCoy’s logic led him to choose the worst option of the three available to him. That he won the game is only going to offer negative reinforcement for the next time he has to make such a call.

Winner: Philip Rivers.

And, finally, give it up for the weirdest quarterback in football:

Filed Under: NFL, Bill Barnwell, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, Peyton Manning, San Diego Chargers, Keenan Allen, Bill Belichick

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell