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Chargers put a monkey wrench into Broncos, AFC playoff picture

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The Denver Broncos were living on easy street before Dec. 12. With the Broncos controlling the No. 1 seed in the AFC and facing three sub .500 teams this months, Denver was set to cruise to home field throughout the playoffs. Yet thanks to the Broncos' mistakes and a desperate San Diego Chargers team, their 27-20 loss put the entire AFC playoff picture upside down, or at least threatened to.

All of a sudden, the Broncos' stunning collapse to the New England Patriots on Nov. 24 is looming even larger -- as are the Patriots' other various great escapes. But with Denver at 11-3, 10-3 New England can move into the No. 1 seed by beating the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 15. However, if the Patriots lose, they could slip all the way down to the No. 3 seed if the 9-4 Cincinnati Bengals beat the Pittsburgh Steelers that night.

Although the Chargers made things easier for the Patriots, they have to root hard against them anyway. Despite having road wins at Denver and Kansas City this season, San Diego is still a playoff longshot without a lot of help. The 7-7 Chargers need the Dolphins to lose to the Patriots, then need the Baltimore Ravens to lose to the Detroit Lions on Dec. 16, so that there can be a three-way tie between three 7-7 teams for the final wild card spot.

While the Chargers could beat the Broncos and Chiefs on the road, not beating the Dolphins in Miami on Nov. 17 may keep them out of the playoffs. But with San Diego next facing the Oakland Raiders and a Kansas City Chiefs club that might rest for the postseason, a 9-7 mark is still possible.

However, the Chiefs might not rest on the final week, now that an AFC West title is possible again. Kansas City can now tie Denver at 11-3, but it needs to be perfect and needs the Broncos to lose one more time. Yet because the Broncos next face the Houston Texans and Raiders -- and just got a massive wake-up call from the Chargers -- they likely won't lose again.

Nevertheless, now the Broncos suddenly need the Patriots to lose one more time. For the first time all year, Denver's destiny isn't in its hands, as it threw it away at home just like it did in last year's postseason.

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