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One win could make all the difference for Packers, Broncos

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The Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers head into Sunday night’s showdown sporting identical 6-0 records. Barring an unlikely tie, one of them will head into their next game with a 7-0 record, while the other will be 6-1. Just how important is that difference likely to be?

From 6-0 to 7-0

Since the NFL expanded the playoffs to six teams in 1990, 36 teams have started 6-0. Of the 31 teams in previous seasons to accomplish that feat, 20 of them won their next game and advanced to 7-0.

Those teams were on the whole outstandingly successful. All of them made the postseason. Seventeen earned a first-round bye. Only one, the 2013 Kansas City Chiefs, did not win their division, and they were in the AFC West with the 6-0 Broncos. Nine made the Super Bowl. Five ended the season as NFL champions, and two of the losers lost to another team that began 7-0.

One cautionary note is 7-0 teams have not fared nearly as well since the NFL went to the current eight-division format in 2002. Of the thirteen teams to start 7-0 since then, six lost their first playoff game. That includes three teams – the 2005 Colts, the 2008 Titans, and the 2011 Packers – that finished the season with the best record in the NFL.

From 6-0 to 6-1

What about the team that loses this game? How have previous 6-0 teams that then lost fared? First, history says 6-1 is no guarantee of a postseason appearance. Broncos fans know this from 2009, when Denver started 6-0 under Josh McDaniels before fading to 8-8 as the defense collapsed. Defensive issues also sunk the 2003 Minnesota Vikings, who finished 3-7.

Most teams that suffered their first loss in their seventh game of the season fared just fine, though. Just one, the 2000 Rams, lost their first playoff game. The more successful teams include those 2013 Broncos, who won the AFC, and the 1997 Broncos, who took the wild card route to the franchise’s first Super Bowl title. Overall, six of the nine that went to the playoffs made the Super Bowl. Three won it. The most encouraging parallel for the loser of Sunday’s game might be the 2004 Patriots. They lost to the Steelers in Week 8, but won a postseason rematch and eventually hoisted the Lombardi Trophy again.

There is also a larger pool of teams that got to 6-1 without necessarily losing their seventh game. Since realignment in 2002, 20 of the 25 teams to start 6-1 have made the postseason. This pool includes the 2013 Seahawks, who defeated those 2013 Broncos, and the 2003 Panthers, who won the NFC South and reached the Super Bowl without a bye. But on the whole it is better to be 7-0 than to be 6-1.

In the Context of 2015

What makes going to 7-0 instead of 6-1 especially important for both Denver and Green Bay is they are not the only 6-0 teams in their conference this year. Despite their perfect record, the Broncos would be the AFC’s third seed if the season ended today, behind New England and Cincinnati. Green Bay similarly ranks behind Carolina. All of the numbers about 7-0 and 6-1 teams that apply to Denver and Green Bay apply with equal force to the Patriots, Bengals, and Panthers.

There are a couple pieces of relatively good news. First, the most important tiebreaker in determining the postseason pecking order is conference results. This interconference result matters for Denver and Green Bay’s overall record, but it will not hurt the loser too much.

Each team has a second piece of good news. For Green Bay, they will not be competing with both Carolina and 6-1 Atlanta for a postseason seed. The top four seeds go to the division winners, and no more than one of the Falcons and Panthers can win the NFC South. Denver has no such silver lining, but they will get a chance to settle things on the field against both the Patriots and Bengals later in the season. If they win both those games, they will be in great position to get home-field advantage. If they lose both, a bye is difficult. Either way, both games are likely to carry more weight than this one.

The most important task for the Broncos and Packers, regardless of who wins, is to keep playing excellent football for the rest of the season. Starting 6-0 is no guarantee of making the postseason. Starting 7-0 is no guarantee of getting a first-round bye, even if it makes it likely. Earning home field advantage is no guarantee of postseason success. Sunday’s is likely to be a great contest. The season is a long one, however, and the winner is guaranteed nothing while the loser’s fate is far from sealed.