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Denver Broncos look to make NFL history with playoff run after shaky start

NFL

The Broncos are looking to become only the fifth team since 1990 to reach the postseason after losing their first three games

As the regular season draws to a close, we’ll take a look each Friday at a game likely to affect the playoff race, along with the teams whose fortunes are rising and falling. And, so we don’t neglect the also-rans, we’ll see which teams are in the hunt for next year’s No 1 pick.

Game of the week

Denver Broncos (6-5) v Houston Texans (6-5)

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Story of the season: Cast your mind back to September: did anyone really think this match would be important in the playoff race? Could either team say they seriously had a shot? Maybe not, but they can now as both sit right on the bubble. Each were last in their division a year ago and in need of serious help. Why even focus on last season, in October the Broncos were 1-5 and should have been 0-6 if the Bears had not spectacularly imploded after leading 28-7. Yet here we are even after the vainglorious Dolphins decimated them 70-20. The difference since their abysmal start has been Vance Joseph’s defense. The coordinator needed some time to get cooking but they now lead the league in creating turnovers with 15 on their five-game winning streak while allowing just over 16 points a game. Houston have had a slightly smoother road thanks to the (rookie?) quarterback CJ Stroud. Aggressive, mistake averse and boasting an unlikely breakout rookie receiver in Tank Dell. DeMeco Ryans stellar debut as a head coach was underlined by Houston’s nail-biting win over the significantly overmatched Cincinnati Bengals. He is now second-favourite in Vegas to be coach of the year and deservedly so. However, Ryans will still be smarting after letting a chance to claw back ground on the AFC West leading Jaguars slip by in their 24-21 loss on Sunday while positively raging that his team handed the Carolina Panthers their only win so far. Only 119 yards in the air proving Stroud is capable of (and should be forgiven for) an off day, one he definitely needs to avoid to keep the Texans in the hunt.

What the Broncos need to do to win: Joseph needs to keep the creativity flowing in the backfield. Make sure shutdown corner Patrick Surtain and safety Justin Simmons pop up all over the field to confuse and pressure Stroud into mistakes. If they can flummox Patrick Mahomes then Sean Payton will be confident his vaunted unit can dominate. On offense Courtland Sutton has been superb in the red zonethe effective if unspectacular running game and Wilson need to stay conservative, keep inching the ball downfield then allow the quarterback to find his pay-dirt Houdini.

What the Texans need to do to win: Denver defense be damned, well sort of. This is truly Stroud’s acid test as without an effective running game they have one choice, throw, throw and throw again. Houston have the second best passing offense in the league in total yards and without being too disparaging to Washington, it really is the best when you add the Commanders’ 13 interceptions and the fact the Texans have almost 100 fewer attempts. Moving away from a season built on this lightning strike of production is not an option. Stroud has shown he can beat very good defenses in the Steelers, Jaguars and Saints already. On defense they match up well with the Broncos as Denver prefer to run the ball on almost half of their plays which fits perfectly into what the Texans do best. They’re third in opponent rush yards per attempt at only 3.6 yards per carry. Wilson throwing from third and long in 2023 is not the perilous situation it once was for oppositions.

Houston Texans quarterback CJ Stroud, right, celebrates with wide receiver Nico Collins after a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at NRG Stadium last Sunday. Photograph: Troy Taormina/USA Today Sports

Playoff race risers and fallers

Rising: Los Angeles Rams (5-6, currently No 9 in NFC)

The Rams demolished the Cardinals on Sunday and leading receivers Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua combined for 45 yards. The return of running back Kyren Williams, who exploded for 143 yards, adds an x-factor on the ground that Sean McVay has been missing as relying on Matt Stafford to provide everything on offense is a dangerous amount of pressure for a 35-year-old quarterback. McVay has rediscovered his magic to pull together a team that looked a sorry version of his former Super Bowl winners and now has them right back on the bubble from 3-6. An excited McVay with a dynamic running attack spells trouble for all if Stafford stays healthy.

Falling: Buffalo Bills (6-6, currently No 10 in AFC)

The AFC is fiercely competitive in the wildcard race and as such many predicted the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl. Now their stock is falling fast after a brutal loss to the Eagles where Josh Allen arguably played the best game of his season. In the NFC they would cruise a wildcard spot but Kansas City at home then the Cowboys away (they average 41 points per game at home). No, thank you. They are by no means out of the race yet but losses to the Jets, Patriots and Broncos are not what championships are built on.

Race for the No 1 pick

Interesting. While the Chicago Bears are 4-8, they lead the race for the top pick thanks to trading for DJ Moore last season, a move that looks masterful as Chicago own Carolina’s No 1 pick. The Panthers are 1-10 with their No 1 pick from this year Bryce Young floundering. One look at their schedule and it is tough but there are still chances to win and confound Chicago: the Saints if Derek Carr remains Sir Dink of Dunk (definitely if Jameis Winston enters the fray), two meetings with a Tampa team that have won one of their past seven and if gunslinger Jordan Love is off target then they have some hope there too. The Arizona Cardinals at 2-10 may just beat them in the race to the bottom. Returning quarterback Kyler Murray is struggling and their defense is ranked the league’s second worst giving up an average of 27 points per game. Up next: Steelers, 49ers, Bears, Eagles, Seahawks. Unless Murray improves this could be a close run thing. Special mention to New England who are very much still in the mix at 2-9 but at least have the Jets in week 17, dreaming of the sweet relief of the season’s end.

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2023-12-01 11:04:00
#NFL #playoff #race #Denver #continue #improbable #turnaround #Houston #NFL

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