Sean Payton is one of the game's best coaches, and has been for a long time, so when he took over as the head coach of the Denver Broncos this season, expected improvement was natural after a terrible 2022 season for the Broncos.
If anybody could fix Russell Wilson, Payton could do it.
So far, so good.
Wilson is playing much better this season than a year ago, his first with Denver, but it was the awful defense that had this Denver team starting 1-5 and seemingly going nowhere. Included in that 1-5 start was giving up a 70-point game to the Miami Dolphins in Week 3 -- as demoralizing a loss as there could be.
Fast forward to Sunday. The Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns, 29-12, to win their fifth straight game and firmly plant their flag in the playoff race with a 6-5 record. The five consecutive victories is the longest streak in the league. The defense that gave up 70 in a game has given up 80 the past five. They have 15 takeaways in the past four contests and average a league-best 2.0 takeaways per game.
Payton has this team surging at the right time as they ready to face a Houston Texans team on the road this week, a Texans team that is also in the wild-card race.
Wilson has improved from last season in a big way. He's taking care of the football and his 20 touchdown-four-interception ratio is the best in the NFL. There are times he looks like Wilson of old, yet there is more of a measured way about him, a way that Payton certainly has coached into his game.
With a soft schedule the rest of the way, it's not impossible to think of this Denver team in the postseason. They do face a three-game road stretch now, starting with the Texans, followed by games at the Chargers and at Detroit to face a good Lions team. If they can navigate those games at 1-2 or even 2-1, they might be a playoff team.
Denver is up to No. 11 in my Power Rankings this week, a far cry from being down near the bottom five weeks ago. Payton has turned this team around.
Fixing Wilson seemed like a big challenge when the season began. In fact, I wondered if Payton could do it.
Not only has he done it, but he has him playing well and the defense has made major improvements.
That 70 burger? Sure seems like a long time ago as this team makes a playoff push.
|They don't make it look easy, but they are finding ways to win games. That's the sign of a good team, but they do have concerns.
|They are surging right now, even if it isn't against the toughest opposition. Dak Prescott is lighting it up.
|The passing game made some big strides against the Raiders, especially by the receivers. That's what's going to define how good they will be going forward.
|They are so good when they have all their players. Brock Purdy is playing at such a high level right now, which is why they have that Super Bowl look again.
|The defense came up big against the Jets, but the offense still isn't clicking on the road, which could be a problem down the line. Losing Jaelan Phillips for the season won't help the cause.
|The offense was a little off against the Chargers, but the defense came up big. They are clearly in the race for the top seed in the AFC as they head to their bye.
|By beating the Texans, they have a firm lock on the division. Trevor Lawrence finally had the big game throwing it, which is a good sign going forward.
|They've had some issues show up in each of the past three games that could be their undoing, including a lack of pressure on defense. They have to get it turned around.
|The change at offensive coordinator really livened up the offense and helped Kenny Pickett in the victory over the Bengals. But they still only scored 16 points.
|In losing a tough game to the Jaguars, they are almost forced to look at taking the wild-card route. That starts this week with a big game against the surging Broncos.
|It's hard to believe they are up this high in the rankings after their horrible start. The next three games, all on the road, will decide their fate.
|That was a tough loss against the Eagles to drop them to 6-6 as they head to the bye. The margin for error for this group is small the rest of the way.
|Shane Steichen has done a nice job getting this team to 6-5 and in the playoff race. With a soft schedule, they have a real chance to make it.
|They looked awful in losing to the 49ers, and now face a tough road game against the Cowboys. Their schedule is brutal the next three weeks.
|That was a damning loss to the Bears that really hurts their playoff hopes. Josh Dobbs came back to reality in a big way in that one.
|They would still be in the playoffs if they started today, but that was not a good look for this group in losing to Denver. The defense let them down.
|At 5-6, they are alive in the playoff chase. Kyren Williams is proving once again that you can find good backs anywhere.
|They are in first place in the division after beating the Saints. It hasn't always been pretty, but they have a lot of young players who seem to be getting better.
|Jordan Love has shut up a lot of critics the past few weeks to keep his team alive in the playoff chase. Watch out if they get all their injured guys back.
|They just don't look like a playoff team, but they have a shot still to get there. Derek Carr can't throw that pick-six to Jessie Bates III against the Saints.
|No Joe Burrow means no chance. They competed against the Steelers, but the offense is too limited as they head to Jacksonville this week.
|The surge under Antonio Pierce has come to a halt the past two games against good teams, but they are still playing better football. That's progress.
|They fired defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, but he won't be the last. Ron Rivera has to be in big trouble.
|They keep losing games, but, amazingly, they are still in the division race. They can't afford many more losses.
|They turned the ball over four times against the Ravens to pretty much seal their playoff fate. They aren't out of it, but it's close to the end.
|The young defense is making strides on a weekly basis. That unit could be special next season.
|They are undefeated at home, but winless on the road. It wasn't flashy against the Panthers, but they found a way.
|It doesn't matter who plays quarterback for this team. They can't score, so they can't win. Why would Aaron Rodgers even consider playing?
|They won an ugly one against a bad Patriots team, but they'll take it. The defense is getting better.
|The progress of recent weeks went away against the Rams. Kyler Murray looked ordinary in that game, which is not good for his future with the team.
|Losing to the Giants is a bad look for this team. The Mac Jones experience is over. He has to stay on the bench now.
|Owner David Tepper fired coach Frank Reich on Monday, which means his anger officially boiled over. They have to be worried about Bryce Young's progress -- and maybe future.