Russell Wilson gets a hard time for his relentlessly positive disposition. It’s hard to know if he really felt good about the Denver Broncos after a loss to the New York Jets that dropped them to 1-4, or if he was trying to get someone else to believe it.
The Broncos were outscored 23-8 in the second half at home in that loss on Oct. 8. To anyone on the outside, there was nothing to be optimistic about. The Broncos had already lost to the Las Vegas Raiders and Washington Commanders at home. One of those teams has already fired its head coach and another might be on the verge. They gave up 700 yards and 70 points to the Miami Dolphins, the first time in NFL history a defense has allowed both in one game. The Jets still haven’t scored more than 20 points in regulation of any other game this season but put up 31 on the Broncos.
Denver was bad. It looked like perhaps the worst team in football. But Wilson believed, or at least said he did.
“We really should and could be 4-1,” Wilson said after the Jets loss. “But ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ is not good enough. The good thing about it and the perspective of it all is that, as we continue to go throughout the season, it’s a journey. There’s still a lot of good things ahead. We really believe that.”
We’ve seen turnarounds in which a team loses a lot of close games early, regression hits and they get on a roll. The Broncos’ turnaround is different because they were terrible, no matter what Wilson said.
Denver had a dramatic win in the final minutes on Sunday night to beat the Minnesota Vikings. It was their fourth win in a row, and they’re back to 5-5. They’ve gone from being unquestionably one of the worst teams in football in mid-October to playoff contention before Thanksgiving.
The funny thing about it is, there’s no obvious answer to why. The Broncos are running the ball better and that has taken pressure off Wilson, cut turnovers significantly and helps the defense too, but they won Sunday night with just 46 rushing yards. The defense is playing a lot better, starting with a competitive loss to the Chiefs that knocked them to 1-5, but are still getting gashed on the ground. They’ve given up 367 rushing yards the past two games. Wilson has been playing well, but he actually was OK when the Broncos were losing too (passer rating of 99 through six games when Denver was 1-5). It’s not like the schedule just got easier; the Broncos’ past three wins are against the Chiefs, Bills and Vikings and it’s likely all three will end up in the playoffs. The Broncos have executed better across the board but if you had to single out one reason for the winning streak, you couldn’t do it.
It’s a weird, practically unexplainable turnaround, which actually fits right into this strange NFL season.
It could continue too. The Broncos don’t have too tough of a remaining schedule. Next up they have a home game against a Browns team that has rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback. Then they face a Houston Texans team that is playing well but far from unbeatable. A road game against the Detroit Lions looks tough. But the other four remaining games are against losing teams. It’s tough to trust the Broncos because we all remember the 1-5 start, but four or five more wins isn’t unreasonable given the schedule. A 5-2 finish would put the Broncos at 10-7 and likely in the playoffs.
The rest of the AFC might come back to the Broncos a bit too. The AFC North has major quarterback issues outside of Lamar Jackson, which could open up some wild-card spots if those teams fade. The bottom halves of the AFC East, South and West divisions are mostly in a steady decline. DVOA’s odds give the Broncos an 11.8% chance to make the playoffs and that seems low, probably because DVOA itself hasn’t caught up to Denver’s rapid improvement. Still, nobody would have believed a few weeks ago that Denver would have even a 10% chance at the postseason.
Rallying from 1-5 to make the playoffs would be remarkable, and while it’s still unlikely, the door is open for it. Wilson might not be a prophet, but it turns out his eye-rolling optimism wasn’t completely empty.
Here are the power rankings after Week 11 of the NFL season:
The Panthers had 187 yards. Bryce Young was sacked seven times. That was Frank Reich’s first game back calling plays and Carolina looked even worse. The Panthers might not win another game this season. How many wins would Reich need to get another year? Three? Four? Is it already too late to save his job for 2024?
The Patriots still haven’t said who will start at quarterback this week, but it might not matter. Mac Jones has been rough all season, Bailey Zappe surely isn’t the answer and some random option like Malik Cunningham seems unlikely. It’s not like any realistic option is fixing the offense.
Tommy DeVito stuck it to a lot of doubters who said he shouldn’t start again (raises hand). He threw for three touchdowns and looked good against the Commanders in a win. No matter what happens the rest of his career, DeVito will always have that day.
Always remember that players don’t tank for draft picks. The Cardinals barely lost at Houston on Sunday and Darren Urban of the team’s site set the scene of a crushed locker room, including Kyler Murray sitting in his uniform at his locker long after the game ended.
“We’re all not feeling well,” safety Budda Baker said, via Urban. “At the end of the day, I’m feeling like he feels.”
Arizona looks a lot different with Murray coming back from injury and providing some juice, and they won’t be an easy out the rest of the season.
The Titans have lost 14 of 17 games since late last season. Yet, if the Titans have any thoughts of firing Mike Vrabel, they’ve lost their minds.
“I don’t try to concern myself with that,” Vrabel said about his job security, via the Tennessean.
It’s not fun to lose. But changing coaches just to do it doesn’t make sense. Vrabel is still a good coach. The Titans won’t be better off without him.
It’s a massive challenge to fire a head coach before a Thursday game. So Ron Rivera gets another week. But if the Commanders lose to the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, and they’re expected to, I assume a change will be made. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for Washington to get a five-game look at Eric Bieniemy, just to see if he’s a viable candidate for 2024.
Justin Fields ran 18 times for 104 yards, which probably isn’t what the Bears want to do every week, but Fields made some nice plays in his return. With Carolina sprinting toward the No. 1 draft pick, and the Bears owning that Panthers’ selection, the “what should the Bears do about Fields?” conversation will get only louder the rest of the season.
It was tough to see Cooper Kupp go down with another injury. It was an ankle injury that knocked him out of Sunday’s game, but at least it was a low ankle sprain and he might not miss much more time. Kupp staying healthy would be a good goal for the rest of the season.
Desmond Ridder is officially back as the starter, but it’s hard to believe Ridder will be a different player this time around. There are many more frustrating days watching this offense in your future, Falcons fans.
Jordan Love played the best game of his career, with 322 yards and two touchdowns in a win over the Chargers. His two biggest games this season, in terms of passing yardage, have come in Green Bay’s past two games. It’s progress. We’re about to have a big referendum game on Love when he takes on the Lions with a huge Thanksgiving audience watching.
The Buccaneers’ defense is struggling. Since the bye, the Bucs have given up 300 yards passing in four of six games, holding only Desmond Ridder and Will Levis under 300. In two of the past three games, they gave up 470 yards and five touchdowns to C.J. Stroud and a perfect passer rating to Brock Purdy. That isn’t a good look for head coach Todd Bowles.
Brandon Staley getting upset at questions about defensive playcalling duties is probably a bad sign. It’s his defense that is near the bottom of the league. There are other issues but it’s fair to ask Staley about the issue that is squarely on him. The pressure of losing with this talented roster is getting to him, and it should be.
The Raiders had a shot to win. They had seven second-half possessions that resulted in three punts, three interceptions and a turnover on downs. That happens with a rookie quarterback who shouldn’t be playing (but is because Josh McDaniels had to get former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo in the offseason). Overall though, it wasn’t a bad day for the Raiders. They competed. They’re just not as good as the Dolphins, but we knew that.
The Jets finally switched quarterbacks. Tim Boyle will replace Zach Wilson for Friday’s game against Miami. That probably won’t change anything, but the Jets had to try something else. Anything else.
Unfortunately, we have to rank the Bengals without Joe Burrow for the rest of the season. There is a good infrastructure and maybe Jake Browning won’t completely wreck their season. But it’s still a step down and the Bengals have the NFL’s toughest remaining schedule. It’s hard to envision a .500 Bengals team making the playoffs now.
Here are the quarterbacks the Colts will face the next six weeks, barring any more injuries or changes: Baker Mayfield, Will Levis, Jake Browning, Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder and Aidan O’Connell. Not that the Colts can count on wins against any team, but they have a shot to stay in the playoff race.
The Buccaneers will factor in as well, but the Saints’ game at the Falcons on Sunday will have a huge impact on who wins the NFC South. The two meet again in Week 18, but someone is going to land a big blow this weekend.
The offense looks broken. It was frustrating to watch Pittsburgh get so many opportunities to win Sunday and not cash any of them in. Cleveland had a good defense but the Steelers’ performance was still abysmal. It’s probably past time to make a change at offensive coordinator, but that wouldn’t fix it all.
The Vikings gave up the late drive to the Broncos and lost, but the play of their defense was still impressive. The Vikings held the Broncos out of the end zone until the final two minutes. Defensive coordinator Brian Flores, who does a great job sending pressure, has been a really good hire.
Courtland Sutton epitomizes the Broncos’ awakening. There were times last season and early this season when he was far from an above-average receiver. Now he has scored a touchdown in five straight games and had a phenomenal game-winning touchdown Sunday. He suddenly came alive, just like the Broncos.
Geno Smith (elbow) and Kenneth Walker III (oblique) are banged up coming out of Sunday’s game. They lost to the Rams, largely because Smith missed most of the fourth quarter. Thursday night’s game against the 49ers was already going to be a big challenge, and it’s a lot worse if Seattle isn’t at full strength.
The Texans got a 149-yard game from rookie receiver Tank Dell. His touchdown was a thing of beauty and was a huge factor in the win. C.J. Stroud is clearly the jewel of Houston’s draft class but Dell in the third round looks like a home run too.
Cornerback Rasul Douglas became the first Bills player with two interceptions and a fumble recovery in a game since 1998. Douglas was a smart pickup for the Bills at the trade deadline. He always seems to be around the ball.
The Browns’ defense is good. The offense with rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson was OK, though averaging 3.8 yards per pass attempt isn’t going to take Cleveland very far. It’s hard to see the Browns keeping pace with the Ravens unless the offense gets a lot better. And no, Joe Flacco is not going to fix anything.
There’s still enough time left this season for Calvin Ridley to have a huge impact. On Sunday, Ridley had two touchdowns, doubling his season total, and his first 100-yard game since Week 5. Trevor Lawrence, not coincidentally, had his highest passer rating of the season. That’s a great sign.
Thursday was one of the more ho-hum 23-point wins you’ll find. The Cowboys did what they had to do to beat a bad Panthers team, and that’s fine. They have to play again Thursday against the similarly undermanned Commanders, and if they win that they’re in good shape heading into December.
De’Von Achane playing just three snaps before exiting with more knee issues is a concern. The Dolphins have plenty of talent but if Achane is healthy and playing like he did early in the season, it makes a good offense that much better. We’ll see if Achane can get healthy for the rest of the season.
The Browns aren’t going away quietly and the Bengals might not either. And Baltimore wasn’t rooting for injuries. But seeing the Browns and Bengals lose their starting quarterbacks for the rest of the season last week was massive news for the Ravens. It would be a huge disappointment if Baltimore didn’t win the division, even without Mark Andrews.
You won’t find many better passes, given the situation, than the one Patrick Mahomes put on Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s hands deep downfield late in Monday night’s game. The same can be said for Mahomes’ fourth-and-25 pass to Justin Watson. Both dimes were dropped and the Chiefs lost after being shut out in the second half, a reminder that this season has been a lot more challenging than last season was for Kansas City.
The Lions were incredibly sloppy on Sunday and that’s concerning. Jared Goff threw three interceptions, his most this season (he had thrown just five in Detroit’s first nine games). It happens. The takeaway is that Detroit won anyway. You’d like to play great every week, but that’s not realistic and there’s something to be said about winning with your C- or D+ game.
The 49ers aren’t first in the power rankings, but the 49ers look like the best team in football when they’re playing even close to their best. If Brock Purdy continues to play anywhere near his level the past two weeks — he had a perfect passer rating on Sunday — the 49ers will be close to unbeatable. This is an impressive team.
It wasn’t pretty, and there will be plenty of discussion about what the Eagles did wrong. But also look at it this way: The Eagles fell behind by 10 points, were pushed around on both lines, were outplayed for most of the game and still won. Against the defending Super Bowl champs, who had a 7-2 record. At Arrowhead Stadium. Nitpick the Eagles if you wish, but they keep winning games.