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Broncos beat Chargers to earn top seed in AFC playoffs; Bengals get 3 seed

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Cincinnati finished with the same record as New England and Denver, but still end up without a first-round bye.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Despite a valiant effort from the Chargers, the Denver Broncos rallied for a fourth-quarter comeback win over San Diego to clinch the top overall seed in the AFC.

After San Diego scored to take a 13-7 lead in the third quarter, Denver benched starting quarterback Brock Osweiler in favor of Peyton Manning, who had missed much of the past two months with a foot injury. From there, Manning and the Broncos would end the game on a 20-7 run to rally past the Chargers en route to a 27-20 win.

The win, combined with the New England Patriots losing to the Miami Dolphins, means Denver is the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs and won't have to leave Denver until a possible Super Bowl game in San Francisco.

It also means the Cincinnati Bengals get the No. 3 seed and a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round. The Bengals, Broncos and Patriots all finished with 12-4 records, but Denver holds head-to-head wins over New England and Cincinnati. New England also wins a tiebreaker with Cincy based on having a better win percentage in common games.

As for the rest of the AFC playoff picture, the Houston Texans win the No. 4 seed and will host the No. 5 seed Kanas City Chiefs in the Wild Card round as well. That means whoever wins the Wild Card matchup between Cincy and Pittsburgh will determine who goes where in the Divisional Round.

A Bengals win means they would go to New England to face the No. 2 seeded Patriots with the Texans/Chiefs winner at Denver in the Divisional Round. However, a win by the Steelers means they would go to Denver against the No. 1 seeded Broncos with the Texans/Chiefs winner playing in New England.

That means a Bengals path to the Super Bowl would begin at home vs the Steelers, continue in New England and then possibly end in Denver before Cincy could make the Super Bowl.

It's not ideal, but certainly not insurmountable for Cincinnati to make that run.

AFC playoff bracket

1. Denver Broncos (12-4)

2. New England Patriots (12-4)

Wild Card weekend

6. Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6) vs. 3. Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)

5. Kansas City Chiefs (11-5) vs. 4. Houston Texans (9-7)