Broncos have put themselves in AFC playoff picture, but start critical stretch of road games Sunday: “The focus has to be strictly on this one.” 


Sean Payton backtracked a little to make a point as he started answering a Monday morning question posed to him about his team’s dramatic turnaround this year that included a now common phrase: “Since Miami.”

“We’re going to be able to reference Miami in a bunch of different ways for the rest of our lives, it seems like,” he said.

The reference, of course, is to the historic, 70-20 loss against the Dolphins in September. The Broncos’ fortunes didn’t turn immediately after that game, but two months later Denver is indeed riding high.

Payton’s team has now won five straight and heads into its biggest game of the season so far Sunday at Houston. The Texans, like Denver, are 6-5 and the pair enter Week 13 tied with Indianapolis for the seventh and final AFC playoff spot.

So much will happen over the final six weeks of the season, but the NFL slate’s reached the point in time where at least early-stage scoreboard watching becomes inevitable.

Naturally, though, Payton wants his team focused on Houston’s third-down tendency rather than whether 6-5 Indianapolis wins at 4-7 Tennessee on Sunday.

“I’ve not, like, put up, for instance, the AFC chart on a PowerPoint and said, ‘OK, here’s where it’s at, here’s what we need,’” Payton said. “I just haven’t done that because I don’t know that it helps and it’s nothing that I think these players don’t already know.

“These games are important. When you dig yourself a hole at the beginning of the season, then there’s a little less wiggle room down the stretch.”

They certainly are important, and the Broncos’ 1-5 start did cost the team a fair amount of margin for error.

Now they’ve got five straight wins in the books, but still sport a 3-4 mark against AFC teams (and 1-2 in the division so far). The critical part for Denver is adding more conference wins and head-to-head tiebreakers.

“It’s that time of the year and, rightfully so, there’s a list of other (teams),” Payton said Monday. “That game yesterday was very similar, right? It was a 7-3 AFC team. But it’s still about you winning. In other words, we could be playing an NFC team and it’s still a unit. And it matters. It just so happens that you’re playing an AFC team that’s a contender. So you can say it’s worth a little more. But it’s still about here and what we’re doing here during the work week as we prepare to play.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position where each of these games becomes more and more important and the focus has to be strictly on this one.”

Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) passes the ball down the field during the first half of the game at Empower Field at Mile High on November 26, 2023 in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)
Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson (3) passes the ball down the field during the first half of the game at Empower Field at Mile High on November 26, 2023 in Denver. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Four of the Broncos’ past five wins have come at home, though they proved they could win on the road with a Monday night victory over Buffalo earlier this month.

“Momentum plays a factor, but every game is its own game,” tight end Chris Manhertz told The Denver Post after Sunday’s win. “Obviously playing on the road is a challenge, so we’ll have to be on our ‘A’ game, but just judging by our trajectory and how we’ve been able to improve these past couple of weeks, we can go in with confidence that we can get wins.”

Denver’s 29-12 win over the Browns boosted their postseason odds substantially, according to several analytics services. They’re up to 44% according to Pro Football Focus, 34% according to the New York Times and 27.9% (doubled from 13.6%) according to Sumer Sports. That’s a wide variance and is impacted by the exact data each site uses to make its calculation, but each shows the importance of beating fellow AFC teams.

The New York Times’ model, for example, shoots Denver’s postseason odds to near 60% with a win against Houston and drops them to south of 20% with a loss.

Bottom line: December football is arriving with critical games on tap, just the way any player or coach wants it.

“Just keep rolling, man,” left tackle Garett Bolles said. “I don’t think you can put the cherry on top of a pie just because you won five games. You’ve got to keep going.”

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