This game has been panned by a lot of NFL fans and those who cover the league professionally. The NFL hasn’t put its best matchups in front of primetime audiences all that often in 2023. The truth is that the Broncos appear to be on an upward trend while the Bills seem stuck in neutral and unable to establish a dominant identity. Through nine week it’s felt like a tale of two seasons for both teams. The Bills, of course, found rhythm early — winning games convincingly en route to a 3-1 record. By Week 5, things began to fall apart, and suddenly Buffalo found itself in a bad place, which has left them at 5-4 heading into Week 10. The Broncos understand the struggle, having began their season 0-3 and losing in historic fashion to the Miami Dolphins, 70-20. Interestingly, the Bills’ last convincing win came via a 48-20 win against those same Dolphins the following week. Since then, Denver’s done well to steer things in the right direction, but issues persist.
This week, Ian St. Clair, editor/columnist with Mile High Country joined me ahead of the Monday Night Football showdown. Everything was on the table, from the Broncos’ turnaround, to the perception of head coach Sean Payton, and how a pre-draft target of mine — linebacker Drew Sanders — looks so far in Denver’s defense. Plus, we get to know a few other names to watch for on Monday, Ian’s thoughts on the matchup in general, and what he finds to be key to a great pre-game Broncos home tailgate.
1. It would appear these current Broncos hardly resemble the same team that began the 2023 NFL season. What’s behind the team’s turnaround?
There’s debate in Broncos Country as to whether this is all “hopium” or legit. If the Broncos were to turn that big win over the Kansas City Chiefs into a meaningful playoff run, it’s definitely legit. Given how bad the last seven seasons have been, fans are hesitant to buy into the fact this is a real turnaround. However, it starts with Sean Payton. You can see the Broncos fully buying into what he’s saying and teaching. That led to the defense playing remarkable football after the Week 3 debacle against the Miami Dolphins. The other crucial factor has been the play of Russell Wilson. Again, you can see him start to feel comfortable with Payton and this offense. It hasn’t been flashy, but he’s been good. Wilson has also been markedly better than his first season in Denver. What’s helped Wilson and the offense is how strong the Broncos are running the football. We’ll see how Denver looks coming off the bye, but those have been the drivers over the last three weeks.
2. What do Broncos fans think of head coach Sean Payton — as in all of it, from his resume to his podium antics about Nate Hackett, to his work through eight games?
Hopefully, they’re all in on Payton. As I just said, he’s the main catalyst for this turnaround. He’s a proven winner, and he knows how to coach. Unlike the guy who was here a year ago who was beyond terrible (and that’s putting it mildly). By the way, Hackett deserved everything Payton said about him. I just wish Payton hadn’t walked it back.
3. I was a huge proponent for the Bills drafting linebacker Drew Sanders in Round 1 of the 2023 NFL Draft. That, of course, didn’t happen. How would you characterize his rookie season to this point?
You can tell he’s still learning the game, the speed and the defense. Sanders is also not getting regular action on defense, given how well Josey Jewell and Alex Singleton are playing right now. But you can also see why George Paton and Payton drafted him. The more Sanders picks up, and the more he flashes on the practice field and on special teams, the more trust he’ll earn from his coaches. The next nine games should show a steady progression of improvement from Sanders.
4. The Bills and Broncos haven’t met in the regular season since 2020, which unfortunately kept fans out of the seats in Denver. Aside from Drew Sanders, who are those lesser-known players Bills Mafia should pay attention to on offense and defense?
Without question it’s Jaleel McLaughlin. The undrafted rookie running back has been phenomenal to start the season for the Broncos. Anytime McLaughlin touches the ball, he has the ability to break it loose. What’s remarkable is he’s doing it as a receiver and runner. The way McLaughlin plays reminds me of Darren Sproles, and we all know how effective he was in Payton’s offense. Marvin Mims is another one when he’s given a chance. The rookie receiver is a deep threat with great speed and playmaking ability. Mims is also dangerous as a returner. On defense, keep an eye on Ja’Quan McMillian. The cornerback was phenomenal against the Chiefs and if he plays like that consistently opposite Pat Surtain, this becomes a very good secondary.
5. The current DraftKings Sportsbook odds have the Bills as a somewhat surprisingly low 7-point favorite. What do you observe that helps play to the Broncos’ favor on Monday, and are most people underestimating Denver’s chances — perhaps considering how they played against the Kansas City Chiefs?
I think the spread is too high, but I get it. Josh Allen and the Bills are at home coming off a tough road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. But my gut tells me people are underestimating the Broncos, especially the defense. They pretty much kept Patrick Mahomes in check in two of the last three games. Allen is a different beast since he’s a more dangerous runner than Mahomes. But I think the strategy is the same — consistent pass rush and hit Allen as often as possible. And keep him in the pocket. On offense, the Broncos need to run the ball. That’s what allowed Denver to beat the Chiefs two weeks ago and it set up Wilson and the passing game in the red zone, where the Broncos delivered. That’s the recipe for Denver to have success on Monday and potentially pull the upset. I do think the Broncos at least cover on Monday.
Each week, SB Nation blogs chat back and forth with one another to gain some insight into their team’s opponent. But I feel like we’re missing out if we don’t stray a bit from the on-field content.
Tailgating. What’s key to a good Broncos home tailgate, and is there a famous go-to for local fans? (Assuming, you’re local enough to attend games, etc.) (Please don’t let it be Rocky Mountain Oysters). I guess what makes Broncos tailgates special/the best?
Cold beer, good food and laughs. If you want to make the tailgate authentic Colorado, have some green chili involved, you pick the level of spicy. But a green chili burger sounds amazing right about now. To be perfectly honest, however, I’ve never been a big tailgater. But I get the impression from over 35 years of walking around Mile High before games that anyone and everyone is welcome with open arms, save for Raiders and Chiefs fans.
My thanks to Ian for taking the time to chat with me this week. Be sure to head over to Mile High Report where you can read my thoughts on this week’s Bills-Broncos game.
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