Denver Broncos have a math problem on offense and won't make the playoffs until they solve it

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are currently clinging to wafer-thin mathematics about their playoff chances after yet another loss without enough touchdowns.

According to ESPN's Football Power Index, the Broncos (7-7) have an 7.8% chance of making the postseason after Sunday's 15-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. They have three games remaining, all AFC West games, two of those on the road.

"We're not out," Broncos coach Vic Fangio said. "We're just going to have to strap it up ... and get ready for the next game."

All true, the numbers do say the Broncos are not quite eliminated from their sixth consecutive postseason, but the real math of this season is the same math that has derailed the previous five.

That with 10 different starting quarterbacks since the 2016 season, five different offensive coordinators and three different head coaches, the Broncos still don't seem any closer to solving their offensive riddle.

Or as Fangio said Sunday "you're not going to win many games in the NFL scoring 10 points."

During a 16-game season the 400-point club was a reasonable expectation for a team with some playoff potential, the 425-point club in a 17-game football year. That is a 25 points per game average and to this point of the season the Baltimore Ravens (23.8 points per game) and the Tennessee Titans (24.1 points per game) are the only teams in the league currently over. 500 and not averaging at least 25 points per game.

The Broncos haven't finished above the 400-point mark since 2014. They scored 22.2 points per game during the 2015 championship year when Peyton Manning missed seven starts and Denver needed a generational defense to win Super Bowl 50. Manning only threw for 141 yards in the title game, after all.

These Broncos are currently averaging 17.4 points per game and Sunday's loss was the sixth time in their seven losses when they've scored fewer than 20 points. Some opposing defensive coaches have privately said the Broncos don't win the line of scrimmage when they use their three-wide receiver set, and game video shows they don't repeat the things that do work.

Decades ago some coaches called it "xeroxing" when teams kept pounding away at what works. The Broncos, especially in their seven losses, don't have enough copies of the things that did work and Sunday was another example. In the first half, the Broncos were in a three-wide receiver package all but eight snaps and trailed 6-3 at halftime.

Asked following the game if he would, or has, intervened during a game with the offensive staff, including offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, Fangio said:

"There's times I do. I try to make my impact -- until it becomes the third-and-shorts, third-and-mediums like I told them to run it on the third-and-2 or -3 that we hit -- we do our talking during the week and you've got to follow that plan."

The all-will-be-well notion the Broncos will fix everything with a better long-term plan at quarterback is a little misguided. Yes, every team in every NFL city wants the "it" guy at quarterback for long and glorious playoff runs. But the Broncos simply haven't matched their personnel with what they want to do on offense nearly well enough.

And even a unit that ranks fourth in total defense and second in scoring defense hasn't been enough to offset a bad offense. These Broncos have lost games in the last three weeks where they held Patrick Mahomes without a touchdown pass on 15 completions and Sunday held the Bengals to 249 total yards as Joe Burrow threw for 157 yards, 56 of those on one catch-and-run touchdown play to Travis Boyd.

These Broncos are now 1-6 when the opponent scores -- even a field goal -- first.

"Any loss is going to be upsetting, but losses in the middle to late December mean a lot," said quarterback Drew Lock, who replaced an injured Teddy Bridgewater at quarterback in the third quarter of Sunday's loss. "… It's about these last three, winning these last three, it's what I can do if I'm out there, it's what Teddy can do if he's out there."

With a bounty of talented young players on offense, the Broncos need to do more. Perhaps 2016 is a cautionary tale. That year, the Broncos sent six players to the Pro Bowl, including both wide receivers and had three All-Pro selections on defense ... and they did not make the playoffs or score 20 points a game (they finished at 19.3).

A winning season in 2021 would represent progress for the Broncos -- 2016's 9-7 finish is their last one -- and the defensive showing through a long list of injuries can't be ignored, but their math problem still stares them squarely in the face: They can't reach the playoffs until they build an offense with the same care and flexibility they built their defense with.