For the first time since 2019, the Denver Broncos won an AFC West matchup on the road, toppling the Los Angeles Chargers in Sofi Stadium to improve to 7-6 on the year.
After a disappointing loss last week, Sean Payton’s team needed to bounce back quickly in a road divisional matchup and they did just that in comprehensive fashion.
So, on that note, let’s get into my takeaways from the Broncos’ 24-7 victory over the Chargers.
Playoff hopes are alive
The loss in Houston felt like a real gut punch to Broncos fans and losing a tiebreaker to a playoff-chasing team will always sting.
With that said the Broncos had still earned themselves the right to be in the playoff mix and due to other results going their way on Sunday they’re back in the thick of the wildcard chase.
Beating the Chargers all but eliminated them from playoff contention, while the Las Vegas Raiders also fell to a defeat, condemning them to another year without a playoff game.
Elsewhere, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Houston Texans both lost in week 13 so they now make up two of the six teams with a record of 7-6 in the AFC wildcard hunt.
The Buffalo Bills won a close game in Arrowhead to move them to 7-6 as well as holding the Cheifs back to 8-5 (one game ahead of the Broncos in the AFC West).
The Cincinnati Bengals, led by backup quarterback Jake Browning, also demolished the Colts moving both teams to 7-6, completing the six-way tie for the last two wildcard spots.
The playoff race is as tight as ever in the AFC with three teams on 8-5 records and the six aforementioned 7-6 teams all gunning for first place in their division as well as wildcard berths.
With their remaining schedule, there’s no reason why the Denver Broncos can’t sneak into that sixth or seventh seed in the AFC come January.
Defence is back to its best
The Broncos’ early season defensive struggles have been well-documented, as has their recent resurgence over the last seven games.
Last week they didn’t have the same venom as they have done in recent weeks and they allowed Houston to get comfortable and produce chunk plays around them.
This week, Vance Joseph brought the heat and they didn’t allow Justin Herbert or the Chargers offence any chance to settle into the game.
Herbert was even taken out of the game at halftime because of a suspected fractured index finger on his throwing hand meaning Easton Stick came into the game in the second half.
The recipe for the Broncos’ success this season has been winning the turnover battle, in Houston they failed to do so, but this week they were around the ball like Hawks.
They forced two fumbles as well as an interception, which teed up Javonte Williams to rush in for the go-ahead score.
Jaquan McMillian had a standout day flying off the edge, blitzing the quarterback from his nickel-corner position all day long and almost had a strip sack fumble recovery which he took to the house only for it to be called back for an incomplete pass instead.
If the defence can maintain this level of play like we’ve seen during the miraculous mid-season turnaround then they can beat anyone left on their schedule.
Offence is struggling to find consistency
Despite the near-flawless play on defence, the scoreline should have been much more convincing than it was, but the offence just couldn’t get into a consistent groove.
They struggled to move the ball in the first half and needed a Jonathon Cooper interception inside the 10-yard line to allow them to put up any points in the first half.
It improved somewhat in the second half and Russell Wilson totted up two passing touchdowns, one to Adam Trautman wide open in the endzone and the other a deep ball to Courtland Sutton which was impressively hauled in taking him to double-digit touchdown receptions in 2023.
Brandon Staley’s defence has been playing well in recent weeks and that can’t be ignored, but if the Broncos are going to make a run the offence needs to back up the great play by the defence and string some drives together to get an early advantage in games.
Six doesn’t go into two
We’ve spoken about all the 7-6 playoff teams, but when it comes down to seeding there are only two wild card spots left to fill.
The Cleveland Browns are 8-5 and the chances are they will be in the first wildcard spot, with the Baltimore Ravens currently having the one-seed at 10-3.
In the AFC South, the Jacksonville Jaguars lost to the Browns and are now 8-5 themselves, they’re currently the four-seed in the AFC but the Houston Texans are also lingering at 7-6 just outside of the playoffs coming off of a disappointing loss to the New York Jets.
Elsewhere, the Steelers, Bengals and Colts are all playing with backup quarterbacks and have shown holes in their games recently.
The Texans might have to field Davis Mills in their divisional road matchup with the Tennessee Titans next week because CJ Stroud entered concussion protocol in their game against the Jets.
That leaves the Broncos and the Bills, who both have their starting quarterbacks still on the field and both are playing with momentum down the stretch.
The Bills have a difficult schedule, in week 15 they welcome the Dallas Cowboys before travelling to Miami in week 18 to face the Dolphins.
As for Denver, they will take a trip to the faltering Detroit Lions next Saturday before hosting the New England Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers and Las Vegas Raiders in their final three games.
A 3-1 record across that run would see the Broncos finish the season 10-7 and most would hope that gets you into the playoffs.
However, in such a stacked AFC wildcard race you would be a brave person to place any bets on which of the six 7-6 teams will make the playoffs at the end of the season.
Week 15 preview
In week 15 the Broncos will headline the NFL’s Saturday Showcase window when they enter Ford Field to take on Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions in primetime.
The Lions started the season hot and were the subject of conversations having them in the conversion with the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers atop the NFC playoff picture.
Fast forward eight weeks and their performances have been unconvincing and they’ve lost three games across that stretch including a demolition at the hands of Justin Fields.
They scraped over the line against the Bears as well during that stretch, as well as having narrow victories over the Chargers and the New Orleans Saints, winning by less than a touchdown in each game.
They’re certainly a team to be got at and the way the Broncos have been playing recently there is no reason to be afraid of the Lions.
This could be a huge road win that propels the Broncos into the playoffs ahead of a key two-game home stretch before finishing the year on the road in Las Vegas.
UK viewers can catch the game live on Sky Sports in the early hours of Sunday morning with coverage starting at 1:15 am GMT.