The Minnesota Vikings head into a Week 11 Sunday night matchup at Denver as one of the hottest teams in the NFL, having won five consecutive games, including two guided by unlikely quarterback hero Joshua Dobbs. Yet, as the road team may find out, the host Broncos are the team that no one wants to face right now.
Denver, like Minnesota, lost four of its first five games. For the rest of the season, it seemed we would continue to hear about how the Russell Wilson trade with Seattle was one of the worst of all time, as not even Sean Payton could fix what ailed the Broncos.
It only took just over 25 games in two years, yet Denver now finally has the look of a winning team again. As banner victories recently, the Broncos ended a 16-game losing streak to the Kansas City Chiefs and went into Buffalo and scored a walk-off game-winning field goal win over the Bills.
Denver has +550 odds to make the NFL playoffs, which is a good wager to make right now. If the Broncos can beat the streaking Vikings to get to the .500 mark, then the following games against the Browns (with no Deshaun Watson), Texans, and Chargers will all seem winnable before the next major test against the Lions in Week 15.
The regular season schedule finishes with matchups against the Patriots, Chargers, and Raiders. A Broncos team that downed Kansas City and Buffalo and may beat Minnesota is certainly capable of winning most of its games on a not-so-scary schedule for the last seven weeks.
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After the win at Buffalo, Broncos beat reporter Mike Klis of NBC, who was outside the visiting locker room, said he could hear the sounds of “darn near pandemonium” coming from inside. Wilson, a lightning rod for all sorts of criticism since he was traded to Denver, was a key performer in the rousing victory.
Wilson completed 24-of-29 attempts vs Buffalo, a completion percentage of 82.8%, which according to the NFL on CBS, was the second-best completion percentage in franchise history with a minimum of 25 attempts. The nine-time Pro Bowler threw five total TD passes against the Chiefs and Broncos in the past two games and he now has six games with a 100-plus passer rating in 2023, the most in the NFL.
The final numbers don’t look fantastic on your laptop or mobile screen in terms of yardage, as Wilson passed for a total of 307 yards in those wins. But the recent version of Wilson has recaptured a good chunk of the form that led to him making nine playoff appearances in 11 years with the Seahawks.
Twice in the win over the Bills, we saw vintage Wilson on display. While he isn’t quite as mobile and frequently dynamic as he was during his best years in Seattle, the 34-year-old QB is still capable of making timely plays that elevate his team to victories.
On a seven-yard TD pass to Courtland Sutton in the second quarter, Wilson scrambled to evade a defender and placed a perfect pass to his receiver in the corner of the end zone. Sutton had to pull off a masterful effort to keep his feet inbounds and secure the TD with minimal room to operate.
According to Sports Illustrated, Wilson scrambled for over 16 yards before launching a pass that traveled nearly 40 yards. The pass had a completion probability of 3.2%, marking it as the “most improbable completion” of the Next Gen Stats era.
Wilson engineered the game-winning drive, which was the 38th of his career, the second-most among active NFL QBs. His 30 fourth-quarter comeback wins also rank second among active QBs.
The resurgent QB play has been designed by Payton through constructing quality elements around him. It is a similar build around Wilson that Pete Carroll constructed during his best years working with him in Seattle, which supports the QB with a consistent running game and complements the offense with strong defensive play.
Javonte Williams has started to emerge as a true feature back for Denver after taking a long road back from a major knee injury in 2022. The second-year RB carried 48 times against Buffalo and Kansas City, battling hard for his 164 total yards.
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Williams’ numbers have not been stellar, but he has brought needed balance to the offense. Denver has rushed for 100-plus yards in five straight games and eased pressure on Wilson, which allows him to challenge defenses as a play-action passer, which has been one of his strengths throughout his career.
Meanwhile, the defense is now coming together under coordinator Vance Joseph, which hardly seemed possible after the Broncos allowed 70 points to Miami in Week 3.
Over the past two games in the wins over the Chiefs and Bills, the Broncos have allowed 31 total points. As noted by ESPN, Denver totaled seven takeaways during the first seven games of the season and had nine takeaways against Kansas City and Buffalo.
Free safety and defensive anchor Justin Simmons, who was the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Week in Week 8, had an interception and a fumble recovery against the Bills, and he has combined with strong safety Kareem Jackson for five interceptions. Ja’Quan McMillian, who has become a rising force at nickel back, has five tackles for a loss and needs one more to set a franchise record for a cornerback.
Outside linebacker Nik Bonitto has 5.5 sacks in his last five games. Inside linebacker Alex Singleton recovered a fumble vs Buffalo and has a tackle for a loss in two of his past three games.
It may have taken seven games for it all to start to come together for Payton in his attempt to turn the Broncos around after their disastrous 2022 season. But the formula to make the postseason is now in place and the team is hitting its stride with a schedule ahead that certainly does not look daunting.
I just entered my wager for the Broncos to make the playoffs before submitting this article. You should do the same as Payton, Wilson, and Joseph are showing they have what it takes to contend for an AFC Wild Card berth, which is a significant turnaround from where this team was last year and five weeks into this same season.
For more Denver Broncos content, continue reading below.
2023 Denver Broncos Begin New Climb Under Sean Payton
June 21, 2023
As the Denver Broncos recently wrapped up their mandatory minicamp, new head coach Sean Payton met the media wearing a visor of the freshly crowned NBA champion Denver Nuggets. He reflected on the unmatchable feeling of winning a pro sports championship, which he had experienced with the New Orleans Saints in 2010.
“Those guys will walk together forever,” Payton said.
The last time the Broncos “walked together” was after the 2015 season, when they won Super Bowl 50. Since then, Denver has the NFL’s second-longest playoff drought, at seven seasons.
Payton was brought out of a one-year retirement to end the cold postseason spell, but cautioned that it will take time to get the Broncos back to contending form, especially when the team has not even gotten to the point of its first training camp together under his guidance.
New Broncos owner Greg Penner is an expert mountain climber, and Payton mentioned Penner when talking about the work ahead for his new players.
“We’re climbing a mountain. I don’t know a lot about climbing a mountain but our owner does,” Payton said. “There’s a process involved in that, weeks, months. The work going north is more treacherous, difficult, challenging.”
The former Saints coach said that at this time of the year, not only is he getting a handle on his own new team, but he cannot accurately gauge where the 2023 Denver Broncos are in comparison to their AFC West rivals right now.
“In the offseason, all 32 teams are kind of running this race with blinders on. The other three teams in our division, I don’t know where they’re at,” Payton said.
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Payton knows that he will gain a better overall read on the outlook of the Broncos as training camp progresses, but even at the conclusion of the preseason, we may not be able to fully tell how much better the team is than last year.
“From an experience standpoint, and historically for me, I always feel like when the season gets near training camp. I’m anxious to see what kind of team we have,” Payton said. “There are a lot of things that can dictate that, especially in the first four weeks of the season.”
So, according to Payton, we may not have a firmer grip on the state of the ’23 Broncos until a few games into the regular season schedule, which makes a lot of sense. Denver has won five games in two of the last three seasons, so frustration may quickly set in for the fanbase if the team gets off to a slow start.
Of course, the obvious key to a rebound to respectability is Russell Wilson, who is coming off his surprisingly worst season as a pro. New Denver offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who was Drew Brees’ quarterback coach in New Orleans under Payton, said there are some needed steps to take for the former Seattle Seahawks star to recapture much of his better form.
“I think a lot of things. Injuries are always a big deal. I’m sure as you look at what happened last year, a lot of it [was] injuries,” Lombardi said of Wilson, who dealt with shoulder and hamstring problems and suffered a concussion in 2022. He also underwent knee surgery after the season.
Lombardi has already started to work with the 34-year-old QB on making some adjustments after reviewing film on him.
“Certainly we watched last year to see what happened. You want to see what a player does well, what he struggled with. But also you don’t want to make too many assumptions. It’s a new year, a new coaching staff, a new scheme,” Lombardi said.
“There’s some muscle memory we’ve got to overcome, he’s used to doing things a certain way and we’re presenting a new way of doing things.”
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Wilson has bought into the new regime already with an eye on a bounce-back season, Lombardi said. Last year, the ex-Seahawk came to Denver brimming with enthusiasm, and he apparently remains dedicated to succeeding with the Broncos.
“He shows up every day, ready to work, the same guy every day, the same attitude, and he’s really fun to work with. So far, it’s been really good,” Lombardi said.
One advantage Lombardi will have with his new offense is a wide receiver room stocked with impressive talents. Second-round rookie Marvin Mims Jr. joins highly promising returnee Jerry Jeudy and proven playmaker Courtland Sutton. Second-year tight end Greg Dulcich also may be set to make his presence felt more in 2023.
“It’s definitely a good problem,” Lombardi said. “Hopefully there’s enough love to spread around to all of those guys.”
Still, as Payton did, Lombardi pointed out that there is much more he has to learn about his players. He has only seen them in offseason action, and while the running backs have looked good enough, he hasn’t seen them try to break a tackle yet.
“It’s hard to evaluate in shorts,” Lombardi said.
Even though the Broncos are under new leadership that needs more time to mold them into an improved team, Lombardi said that Payton is already making his presence felt in new ways. His approach is one that Lombardi is familiar with but is new in Denver.
“You kind of appreciate what Sean brings, the daily excellence that he demands of everybody,” Lombardi said. “He keeps everyone on their toes and you always know you’re going to have a chance to win.”
Having a chance to win every week might be a welcomed outlook for Broncos’ followers after last year’s fiasco of a season. New defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who was Denver’s head coach from 2017 to 2019, said he already sees Payton’s stamp being imprinted on the team.
“He’s doing a great job with the culture of the football team,” Joseph said.
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Having frequently faced Payton in the past as a head coach, defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach, Joseph knows that having a unique offensive mind watching over the Denver offense will present significant advantages for the Broncos.
“I think [he] is one of the greatest play-callers in NFL history. His personnel groups he uses on an every-down basis is really tough to match. He’s always attacking what you’re doing best,” Joseph said.
“He kind of saves plays for big moments in a game that you hadn’t seen in a month, maybe a year. The tempo he calls plays with is unique.”
Payton is looking to change the overall mentality of his players. He wants them to avoid critical mistakes and put errors behind them quickly.
He has already used last season’s AFC Championship Game late-hit penalty on Patrick Mahomes that cost the Bengals dearly as an example.
“We’ve got to understand what we’re trying to accomplish as a team,” Payton said. “We also have to understand discipline-wise, how to get to the edge but not cross the line.”
“We referenced the Cincinnati Bengals penalty. You’ve got to train yourself mentally to get onto the next play.”
The arrival of the ex-Saints mastermind can certainly put a new jolt into the offense. For Joseph, the defensive task is to make sure that the NFL’s seventh-ranked unit from 2022 does not slip at all and performs better in some key departments.
The secondary is sturdy, but the pass rush can certainly do better than the 36 sacks they had last season, which ranked 23rd in the league.
“This has been a very good defense here for a long time in Denver. The challenge for me is to take what they did last year and continue that,” Joseph said. “But you can always improve in certain areas. It’s an experienced group on the back end.”
While all the leadership pieces seem to be in place for pointing the Broncos back in a good direction, Payton reiterated his analogy about scaling mountains.
“When you’re climbing something, it’s slow going up,” Payton said.
Overall, though, the 2006 Associated Press Coach of the Year is encouraged by what he has seen from his new players so far.
“But to the conditioning level, to the strength, to the running, to the offseason program, I like where we’re at now.”