Michael Lombardi: Sean Payton’s winning formula for Denver

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Sean Payton finds Denver’s winning formula

During the 2002 season, Bill Parcells was sitting out of football, watching the horses race in Saratoga, paying attention to his former team, the New York Giants. Parcells has an uncanny ability to observe what others don’t, and when then-head coach Jim Fassel demoted his offensive coordinator publicly, taking over the playcalling duties, Parcells noticed how a young Sean Payton handled the setback.

Though Parcells didn’t know Payton or his background, he was impressed with how Payton behaved after the public humiliation by not sulking or complaining. After Parcells was named the Cowboys head coach, he called Payton, had an in-depth conversation, and then hired him as his offensive coordinator. From 2003 until now, Payton has been a student in the Parcells school of head coaching. And this season’s work in Denver by Payton and his staff is classicly Parcellian. 

After being destroyed in Miami 70-20, the Broncos were 0-3 and had created one turnover with their defense all season. The season looked bleak and was getting bleaker with each loss. The Payton “doubters” were out in full force, believing he had lost his fastball. Without star Saints quarterback Drew Brees, he was a below-average coach.

As the losses continued to pile up—a bad one at home to the Zach Wilson Jets, and then a tough Thursday night game in Kansas City—Payton understood the strengths and weaknesses of his team. His offense turned the ball over 11 times in five games. In those games, they threw the ball over 30 times in games and lost four of them, only beating the Vikings with 35 passing attempts. At 1-5, Payton solved the one issue all head coaches must solve once the season begins:  How do we have to play to win the game? 

Six games into his tenure in Denver, Payton understood his team needed to run the ball, limit Russell Wilson’s potential for mistakes and never turn down points, regardless of what the analytics meter on the screen proclaims. Payton went old school in his approach. Wilson has averaged 26.8 passing attempts in the last six games, compared to 30.8 in the first six games. During his five-game win streak, the Broncos have scored 117 points, averaging 23.4 points per game, and 48 of the 117 have come from field goals.

Payton has gone for it on fourth down only five times in those five games, converting two. His defense has allowed 80 points, 16 points per game. The Broncos have thrown for over 200 yards one time and have only turned the ball over three times.  Their defense, which leads the NFL in creating turnovers, has forced 16 turnovers in those five games. 

Because of the Miami game, all the Broncos’ numbers are skewed. For example, if you remove the 70 points allowed against the Dolphins, the Broncos point differential is 226-210 in their favor. Payton understands regardless of the opponent, the Broncos must play mistake-free, take the points and win the game in the fourth quarter.

For us as bettors, we need to understand barring any unforeseen injury of the opponent’s quarterback, the Broncos are a good bet, especially when getting more than three points as they are this week in Houston. The Broncos aren’t three points better or worse than any team, and each of their remaining six games will come down to a kick. And with four of their remaining six games on the road, the Broncos will need to continue to find ways to win close games. Because they have the formula, with the confidence they can win, the Broncos have become a good team with a solid chance to become the seventh seed in the AFC. 

As of now, they are the ninth seed, ironically tied with Houston, their opponent this week, at 6-5. The Broncos have the tiebreaker with the Browns and Bills as a result of defeating each team. And if they can beat the Texans, that would give them a huge advantage heading into December for the seventh seed.  

As for the rest of the AFC, the Browns seem to be fading because of injuries to their key players, most notably Myles Garrett and rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, so it might be hard for them to hang on to their sixth seed. The Colts have won three in a row and have an easy schedule moving forward. Currently, they are the number one threat to the Broncos’ playoff chances.

Gardner Minshew won his second game in the last 17 when his opponent scored 20 or more points, which is a huge milestone. For the next five weeks, the Colts will face bad quarterbacks, from Will Levis, Jake Browning, Kenny Pickett, Desmond Ridder, and Aidan O’Connell, before facing CJ Stroud at home in the season’s finale.

With Minshew under center, the Colts are vulnerable to losing any one of those games, especially if he becomes turnover-prone like he was against Jacksonville and Cleveland. If he can play a clean game, and the Colts can continue to utilize their running game with a mixture of Jonathan Taylor and Zach Moss, they can easily be the sixth seed. They aren’t a good team, but a favorable schedule, a ground game and making no mistakes is the formula for them to win, just as it’s the same formula for the Broncos. 

The one team that can throw a wrench into seeing the Broncos and Colts in the playoffs is the one-man show in Buffalo. Don’t underestimate Josh Allen even with a tough schedule ahead. Allen alone can win games for the Bills as he almost did this past Sunday against the Eagles. Coming off the bye, rested and healthy, the Bills will need to win four of the next five, which is doable considering their final three games of the year are against the Chargers, Patriots and Miami. By Week 18, Miami won’t be playing for anything and could rest their players. The Patriots will be an easy win and the Chargers might have packed their bags. So, if the Bills can beat either the Chiefs or the Cowboys, they can get to ten wins and will be in the mix. For me, it’s worth the +500 prize that DraftKings is currently offering.  Don’t count Allen out. 

The next six weeks are the best six weeks of the year. Christmas lights, music, shopping, and the unpredictable NFL. It doesn’t get any better than this. What could make the next six weeks even better is, Denver making the playoffs and their opponent is the Dolphins in Miami. Who wouldn’t want that game under our tree this Christmas?