BRONCOS

From the ashes of 1-5 and 70-20, the Broncos rose — and are now legitimate contenders

Dec 10, 2023, 8:46 PM | Updated: 8:54 pm

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — It no longer matters what the Broncos were.

OK, it does matter in the standings — because damage was done during the team’s 1-5 start. Their conference record of 4-5 is the second-worst among the nine teams in the playoff chase with 7-6 or 8-5 records. Of the eight other teams in the mix, the Broncos hold tiebreaker advantages on just three of them: Buffalo and Cleveland in head-to-a play and Cincinnati on conference record.

But in terms of how these Broncos walk into a stadium? And how they play starting when Wil Lutz’s toe strikes the leather football?

They couldn’t be more different than the club that wilted in the sultry September sunshine of South Florida and surrendered more points in a single game than any NFL team had in nearly 57 years. Or the team that started 1-5 and appeared to be just one loss away from going into full-scale sell mode at the Oct. 31 trade deadline.

The early-season Broncos capitulated.

The late-season Broncos exert their authority on opponents.

And when they face a team at the precipice of disaster, as the Los Angeles Chargers were heading into Sunday, they don’t extend a hand of self-inflicted wounds to help their foe back to its feet. They knock them down from the opening and give them few chances to arise.

That’s what the Broncos did to Kansas City in Week 8, Cleveland in Week 12 and the Chargers on Sunday.

That’s what playoff teams do. And while the standings and tiebreakers don’t yet say it, this Broncos team is on track to return to the postseason for the first time since Super Bowl 50.

Further, they do that BECAUSE of what they experienced in the season’s first six weeks.

“I don’t necessarily think you have to hit rock bottom,” cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian said. “But it’s good to go through those things, you know? You go through the tough times and later on, when you’re having close games at the end of the year, you’ve been there before, so it don’t surprise you.

“Everybody just keeps fighting, keeps working, keeps scrapping.”

And because of that, the Broncos are a legitimate contender.

So, how did the Broncos get here?

KANSAS CITY WAS THE POINT WHEN IT TURNED

The Broncos started their winning streak on Oct. 22 against Green Bay. And their trip to Kansas City 10 days earlier showed the initial signs of a revival.

But it wasn’t until the week of the rematch with the Chiefs that a different mindset took hold.

“Even before the winning streak, guys were buying in. Like, sure, we were losing games and stuff, but guys were buying into it,” tight end Adam Trautman said.

“And then I remember going into Kansas City — the second game — and it was like, ‘This is the game that turns everything for us.’ And it really was. And here we are sitting at, what, 4-1 since that game?”

It comes back to their leadership. Players bought into what Payton’s as selling.

“He instills confidence in his players,” Trautman said. “and we kind of roll with that.”

And since that 24-9 throttling of the Chiefs, more wins have followed. More that saw the locker room filled with the same mindset it had before the game that snapped a 16-game losing streak to their rivals to the east … and changed everything about the trajectory of the season, leading to the point where the once-unfathomable — a playoff spot — is within their grasp.

“Yeah. I think you can kind of feel it before certain games, and you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re gonna take care of this,’’ Trautman said. “We felt that numerous times, obviously, sitting here at 6-1 in the last 7.”

And even the “1” — last week’s loss to the Houston Texans — came with a silver lining.

“It’s the NFL, everyone’s gonna get got at some point, honestly. So, it’s just, ‘Regroup.’ If you think about that game, too, some of the plays that we usually make — or usually get calls on PI or whatever the case — just didn’t happen,” Trautman said.

“And we still almost won the game, as bad as we played, we still almost won the game. So, we still had immense confidence.”

BUT THE BRONCOS STILL HAVE FLAWS

One fascinating aspect of the AFC’s suddenly wide-open race is how each team has at least one fatal flaw. Kansas City has a wide-receiving corps that is among the league’s worst. Jacksonville wobbles on Trevor Lawrence’s injured ankle, which clearly affected him during a loss to the Joe Flacco-led Browns.

And for the Broncos, it remains an offense that doesn’t always take advantage of the opportunities afforded it. Jerry Jeudy’s inability to get his left foot down in-bounds with a potential second-quarter touchdown catch was the most dramatic example Sunday. He got the celebration right, but not the catch — and as a result, the Broncos settled for a Lutz field goal that kept the Bolts in it for a little while longer.

Obviously, we need to continue to get better on offense, because you can’t always rely on your defense being super dominant. It doesn’t matter what defense it is,” Trautman said.

But the emergence of the Broncos defense has given the offense a runway to figure things out.

“They’re playing unbelievable,” Trautman said. “I said this probably before the Browns game, maybe — they’re playing like the best defense in the entire league right now. Even last week, it didn’t matter, we lost, but they still played like one of the best defenses in the league. So, we’re very confident in them.”

Denver’s offense may continue to inspire nervousness in its supporters.

But its defense — and the resilience and resourcefulness developed by the team — might be enough to take the Broncos to a place that seemed unfathomable in late September and mid-October.

Even with flaws, these Broncos are good. And they know something that hasn’t been familiar around these parts since Super Bowl 50: They know how to win, and they do what good teams do.

What they were in September is irrelevant.

What they are now is contenders.

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From the ashes of 1-5 and 70-20, the Broncos rose — and are now legitimate contenders