ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The confidence, on first blush, seems incongruent.
The Broncos boast a 3-5 record, lost three home games as a favorite by squandering halftime leads, and own a single victory against an AFC team. And yet, the players returned from their bye week feeling confident about the second half. A 6-3 finish is required to post the first winning record since 2016. A 7-2 mark is likely necessary to reach the postseason for the first team since Super Bowl 50.
But hope exists. Not as a strategy – that is pointless – but as a matter of confidence. The counter argument remains that Denver owned a 3-5 mark last season at the bye week and talked a big game. The differences go beyond the record. A year ago, the Broncos made passing a kidney stone appear easier than passing the football. Russell Wilson had six touchdowns and four interceptions with a 58.7 percent completion rate. This season? Try 16 touchdowns – his total for all last season -- four picks, and 66% connection, leaving him on pace for 34 touchdowns. No Broncos quarterback has eclipsed 20 since 2014. The Broncos rank second in yards per rushing attempt at 4.8 and 11th in yards per game (116).
However, the real reason the Broncos believe is because they are playing complementary football spearheaded by a rejuvenated defense. It’s mind-bending how much the Broncos have improved after awful first month that included the Dolphins Debacle. That 70-point game seems like a long time ago.
Over the last five games, the Broncos have stiffened against the run. They still rank last at 154.1 yards per game, but it stood at 177.7. And the most dramatic improvement has come in the red one. Through the first three weeks, opponents scored touchdowns at a 45.5% clip. The Broncos boast the best defense inside the 20 over the last five weeks, allowing touchdowns on three of 16 attempts. The Chiefs reached the end zone once in eight chances over two games.
“It’s a bend, but don’t break defense. They will make some plays in the field, but once they get in that red zone our standard is to hold them to three or nothing,” All-Pro cornerback Pat Surtain II said Tuesday. “That is our standard and we have held ourselves up to it the last few weeks and have a great thing going on.”
Players credit defensive coordinator Vance Joseph’s calm demeanor and positivity for weathering the awful start. They simplified calls, improved communication and some personnel changes helped with the return of Baron Browning at outside linebacker – he’s showing shades of Von Miller in his game – Mike Purcell playing defensive tackle and Ja’Quan McMillian providing tenacity and playmaking at the nickel slot.
“V.J. stayed the same person when things weren’t going our way. He showed up with the right attitude. As a defense, seeing your leader take the same approach, it made guys in the room think twice of how we respond when things don’t go our way,” said Browning, who has two sacks and three quarterback hits in two games.
Defensive end Zach Allen admitted that he understood why the media and fans panicked after the first three weeks. The numbers were the worst in franchise history over that short of span. He insisted the players never did. The result has been eye-opening as Denver has allowed 15 points per game over its last three.
Is it sustainable? If the Broncos are team with roots and not just a team that has gotten hot, this week provides the latest measuring stick. The Bills own the ninth best record in the AFC at 5-4, ranking as one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams. However, they still have quarterback Josh Allen, and the former Wyoming star is 7-3 in November at home.
“One of the underrated things about him is his running ability,” said Surtain of Allen, who has rushed for 44 touchdowns, six this season.
Win at Buffalo, and suddenly the Broncos will be taken seriously again. There are no elevators back to relevance. They know they must keep climbing the stairs.
“You know we have a little bit of a streak going. We have been playing pretty well, had some close games that could have swung our way. I am just really looking forward to these next few weeks and growing as a team,” right guard Quinn Meinerz said. “We are having more and more games of playing complete football together with offense, defense, and special teams. That’s really what it takes to win in this league. So, it’s been really fun and exciting to have success on the offensive side of the ball, but also have the team success.”