The Broncos have been overshadowed in the AFC West this year by the high-flying Chiefs and resurgent Chargers, but with a month left in the season, Denver is still alive in the playoff hunt—and looks primed to grab some of the spotlight. The battle-hardened Broncos have fought through the NFL’s second-toughest schedule to date and, as winners of three straight, find themselves at 6-6 and in the position to capitalize on a relatively easy stretch run. With winnable matchups with the 49ers, Browns, and Raiders on tap, Denver has a chance to make a late-season push for a postseason spot. Leaning on an old-school strategy that combines a strong ground game with a tough defense, the Broncos have quietly emerged as a dark horse in the muddled AFC wild-card race. Is it time we start taking this Denver team seriously?
The Broncos went into their Week 10 bye at 3-6, losers of six out of their past seven games, seemingly headed toward a second straight offseason with a top-five pick. Head coach Vance Joseph’s seat was heating up; quarterback Case Keenum looked like a free-agent quarterback flop; and even the team’s typically stout defense crumbled, especially as it gave up 500-plus yards in a 34-16 loss to the Jets in Week 5. But Denver came out of its off week with a vengeance, notching a duo of confidence-building wins over the Chargers and Steelers before dispatching the Bengals last Sunday. In a three-week stretch, Joseph’s saved his job (at least for now), Keenum’s cleaned up most of his mistakes, and the defense has gotten back to its turnover-creating ways.
A newfound zeal for smashmouth football has been a big factor in Denver’s climb out of the midseason doldrums. Broncos rookie running back Phillip Lindsay has grabbed the reins of the Broncos offense over the past three weeks, taking much of the pressure off of Keenum to carry the team. After averaging 37 pass attempts and 267 yards per game over the first 10 weeks of the season—a stretch in which he notched 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions—Keenum’s averaged just 27 attempts and 184 yards passing in the team’s three-game win streak. That more conservative tack has meant he’s thrown just three touchdowns in three games, sure, but it also has helped him cut down on the back-breaking turnovers that doomed Denver early in the year—Keenum’s posted four straight turnover-free outings. Lindsay’s picked up the slack that lower-volume pass offense creates: Behind an outstanding run-blocking line—which, by the way, has opened up major run lanes despite having been racked by injury—the rookie has rushed for 346 yards and five touchdowns on 44 totes in the past three games, averaging an incredible 7.86 yards per carry. The Broncos have rallied around their budding superstar back, and his ferocious, fearless running style embodies the offense’s new identity.
You can see that attitude in Denver’s defense, too. The Von Miller–led unit has stepped up in a big way in the past three weeks, tallying nine takeaways while holding opponents to an average of just 16.3 points. Miller has notched 3.5 sacks, three tackles for a loss, five quarterback hits, and an interception in that stretch, and has been bolstered by rookie Bradley Chubb, who’s collected 2.0 sacks, two tackles for a loss, five quarterback hits, and a forced fumble of his own.
On the back of this win streak, Denver’s moved back up into the no. 5 spot in Football Outsiders’ DVOA rankings. That might seem shockingly high—the Broncos sit above teams like the Steelers, Bears, and Patriots, just to name a few—but it illustrates the underappreciated balance Denver has on both sides of the ball. With the ninth-ranked offense and second-ranked defense, the Broncos are one of just two teams that rank in the top 10 in both offense and defense (the other is the Chargers). Their DVOA rank also speaks to their tumultuous path to 6-6: The Broncos have gone toe to toe with some of the league’s best teams this year, notching wins over the Seahawks (currently 10th in DVOA), Chargers (third), and Steelers (sixth)—with losses to the Ravens (ninth), the Texans (11th), two to the Chiefs (first), and one to the Rams (second). In that 23-20 loss to L.A., Denver’s defense confounded Jared Goff, holding the prolific Rams passer to just 201 yards and no touchdowns on 14-of-28 passing. That performance alone should make Denver’s potential playoff opponents sit up and pay attention.
With that context, it’s clear that the Broncos are better than their record indicates. And while you can do this exercise with just about any team, it’s worth noting that Denver really is just a few pivotal miscues away from an 8-4 record. Had Keenum not missed a wide-open Demaryius Thomas at the goal line with 22 seconds to go in the team’s 27-23 Week 4 loss to the Chiefs—or had kicker Brandon McManus not missed a 51-yarder in the closing seconds of their 19-17 loss to Houston—the narrative around this Broncos team would be very, very different.
Denver has zigged while everyone else in the NFL has zagged, and it has what could be a winning postseason formula. On offense, the Broncos can lean on their physical run game—it currently ranks second in DVOA, second in yards per attempt (5.4), and third in touchdowns (16)—thus boosting their ability to take care of the ball (with just one turnover in the past month, Denver’s pushed its seventh-ranked turnover margin to plus-8). And defensively, Denver excels in two key areas: rushing the passer and creating takeaways. With the Miller-Chubb combination acting like a pincer from the edges, Denver’s tied for fifth in sacks (37) through 13 weeks. That near-constant pressure has helped create plenty of rushed-throw opportunities for the secondary, and the Broncos are fifth in interceptions (13).
But a pair of major injuries threaten to derail the momentum Denver’s carrying into the last month of the season. With star cornerback Chris Harris out for a month with a fractured fibula, the team’s talented secondary must replace its best and most versatile player. And with receiver Emmanuel Sanders now out for the year with an Achilles injury, the offense has lost its most talented pass catcher. Those two injuries could create a cascading effect down the ranks, with players on both sides of the ball forced to step up into bigger roles down the stretch. Offensively, a group that’s already been bad on third downs (34.7 conversion rate, 27th) and in the red zone (20th in touchdowns per red zone trip) will have to dig deep in both areas, with DaeSean Hamilton joining Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick—all three rookies—as Keenum’s primary go-to receivers. After limiting Keenum’s role and impact the past few weeks, Denver may need its quarterback to step up down the stretch to keep the chains moving and score points. Losing Sanders’s field-stretching ability means opponents may be able to crowd the box a little bit more to stop the run, too, meaning Lindsay’s going to have to shoulder an even heavier burden for this squad.
Defensively, losing Harris puts this team’s secondary group in a tough spot. The three-time Pro Bowler is Denver’s top lockdown cover man, capable of playing on the outside or in the slot. His injury puts more pressure on Bradley Roby, may move safety Justin Simmons into a bigger role in nickel looks, and will demand more from rookie Isaac Yiadom and veterans Tramaine Brock, Brendan Langley, and the newly signed Jamar Taylor. It may affect how teams game-plan against Denver’s defense as well. Without having to work around the play-making Harris, the Broncos defense just got a whole lot easier to attack.
Of course, Harris’s injury isn’t season-ending, so the Broncos just need to survive the next month or so without him. With their next three games against teams with a combined 8-27-1 record (San Francisco, Cleveland, and Oakland), it’s not hard to imagine this Denver team sitting at 9-6 heading into Week 17, setting up what could be a decisive season finale at home against the Chargers. There’s a lot that can happen from now until then, but 10 wins might be enough for the Broncos to sneak past the Ravens (who hold at 7-5 record and a head-to-head tiebreaker), Dolphins, or Colts for the sixth and final spot in the AFC. Right now, Football Outsiders pegs Denver’s shot at the postseason at 30 percent; FiveThirtyEight is not quite as optimistic, giving them 21 percent playoff odds. The Broncos are going to have to be damn near perfect down the stretch, and they’ll need to get some help from the teams in front of them, but if Keenum can keep playing efficient, turnover-free ball and the defense can keep creating sacks and turnovers, Denver could be looking at an unlikely postseason run. After writing them off earlier in the year, I’m not looking past this Broncos team anymore.