NFL Analysis


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Denver Broncos Are NFL’s Surprise Playoff Hopeful

Denver Broncos WR Courtland Sutton catches a winning touchdown against the MINNESOTA VIKINGS
Nov 19, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton (14) catches a touchdown over Minnesota Vikings cornerback Mekhi Blackmon (5) in the fourth quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Photo by: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

After their Week 6 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Denver Broncos would have owned the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft if the season ended then. They had a record of 1-5 with a point differential of -71 and were one of the league’s biggest laughingstocks.

Their offense scored only eight points against the Chiefs, and it appeared QB Russell Wilson‘s time as a starter in Denver was ending.

But something changed in Week 7. The Broncos got a 19-17 win at home against the Green Bay Packers  and the team started playing with confidence. After allowing 164 points between Weeks 2-5, the defense suddenly started to play better. They held the Chiefs to nine points in their second meeting and that’s when things began to change for the Broncos.

Coming off a thrilling win on Monday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills, the Broncos had another chance to get a prime-time win. And they did just that against the Minnesota Vikings. Despite the 1-5 start, the Broncos aren’t dead yet.

Playoffs Enter Conversation for Broncos

Despite trailing for nearly the entire game, Wilson and company scored a touchdown with 1:03 remaining to give the Broncos a one-point lead. The defense did its job, not allowing the Vikings to gain a yard on their final drive. Now, the Broncos sit at 5-5 after Week 11 and have a real chance of making a run in December.

Just how big was this win for the Broncos? According to the New York Times Playoffs Simulator, the Broncos had a 15 percent chance of making the playoffs going into their Week 11 matchup. A loss would have dropped their odds down to 7 percent. Instead, the victory increased their playoff chance to 23 percent after Sunday’s 21-20 win.

The Broncos aren’t favored or expected to make the playoffs this season, even with their four-game win streak, currently the NFL’s longest. That they are here and even have a chance is a testament to Sean Payton’s coaching job. 

This team easily could have folded up shop and started to look ahead to 2024 after the 1-5 start. Instead, they’ve won four straight games, three of which were against teams with winning records at kickoff.

Jonathon Cooper and Zach Allen of the Denver Broncos sack Minnesota Vikings quarterback Josh Dobbs
Nov 19, 2023; Denver, Colorado, USA; Minnesota Viking quarterback Joshua Dobbs (15) is sacked by Denver Broncos linebacker Jonathon Cooper (0) and defensive end Zach Allen (99) in the first half at Empower Field at Mile High. Photo by: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Defense Fuels Turnaround

So how have the Broncos managed to make this turnaround? It starts on defense. Over the past four games, the Broncos are allowing just 17 points per game. They don’t give up huge passing plays and they’re starting to create consistent pressure up front. 

Moving on from veterans Frank Clark and Randy Gregory proved to be underrated moves because they opened up playing time for Nik Bonitto, Jonathon Cooper and Baron Browning. Those three young EDGE defenders brought more speed and athleticism to a defense that desperately needed it. 

It also doesn’t hurt that the Broncos are plus-11 in the turnover department in their last four games. They’ve created 12 takeaways in their past three games. That is absolutely wild. 

They deserve credit for creating more pressure on quarterbacks, but turnovers can be a bit fluky. The fact that they are plus-11 in the turnover margin in the last four games but just plus-20 in point differential suggests that they might be more lucky than good, especially on defense.

Wilson Thrives in Manager Role

That brings us to Wilson, who played exceptionally well against the Vikings. His touchdown drive to win the game was brilliant and he was in total command. Wilson was even better than his statistics due to several drops that dinged his box-score numbers.

Payton has turned Wilson into a game manager, but that’s a positive. Over the last month, he has not thrown an interception and is completing more than 74 percent of his passes. Now, he’s only averaging 190 yards per game, but he’s not turning the ball over and the Broncos are staying alive in games. 

We saw him take more shots down the field on Sunday, including a gorgeous, winning touchdown throw to Courtland Sutton. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he was 2-5 on passes beyond 20 air yards against the Vikings:

If the Broncos want to continue this run, Payton must unleash Wilson a bit more. They have yet to score more than 24 points in a game in their win streak. The offense needs to be more explosive and the Broncos have to take more shots down the field. But in the time being, this style of offense has allowed them to rack up wins and get back in the AFC Wild Card hunt. 

Broncos Control Their Destiny

So where do the Broncos go from here? They will play rookie quarterbacks in back-to-back weeks, starting with the Cleveland Browns coming to town in Week 12. After that, they’ll play three straight road games (Houston Texans, Los Angeles Chargers and Detroit Lions). The schedule is not easy, but neither were their previous four games and they’ve managed to take care of business. 

Opponent (record)
Week 12vs. Browns (7-3)
Week 13at Texans (6-4)
Week 14at Chargers (4-6)
Week 15at Lions (8-2)
Week 16vs. Patriots (2-8)
Week 17vs. Chargers (4-6)
Week 18at Raiders (5-6)

The Browns, Texans and Chargers also are Wild Card contenders, so the Broncos control their destiny. The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t on their schedule, but they are another flawed team that is only one game ahead of them. 

If the Broncos’ defense can continue to create turnovers and Wilson can improve each week, then it’s not crazy to think that this Denver team could be in the thick of things by January. Considering where we were after their ugly loss on Thursday Night Football against the Chiefs, that’s pretty incredible.

Broncos Country, let’s ride.