DENVER — As the Broncos return from their bye week looking to extend a two-game winning streak, Head Coach Sean Payton has seen the strides his team has taken in recent weeks.
"Clearly, I feel like we're a better team today than we were four or five weeks ago," Payton said Monday. "You can see that in a lot of ways."
Defensively, Payton pointed to the Broncos' improved run defense and success in the red zone. After allowing 219.3 rushing yards per game over a four-game stretch from Weeks 2-5, the Broncos have allowed fewer than 100 rushing yards in two of their last three games and limited the Chiefs to 62 rushing yards in a Week 8 win. In the red zone, Denver has held its opponents to three touchdowns in their last 16 opportunities dating back to Week 5.
On offense, Payton said he's been encouraged by the running game's efficiency and a 3-for-5 red-zone performance in a win over the Chiefs. Denver's special teams unit, meanwhile, has won "most of those battles, which means a lot."
Put simply, Payton has seen his team execute at a level that is good enough to win games.
"We're doing a number of the things that are necessary to win games that I don't think we were doing nearly as well at the start of the season," Payton said.
The Broncos' reward for their improved level of play is a chance to earn a third consecutive win when they travel to Buffalo for a "Monday Night Football" meeting. That matchup — combined with a Week 11 "Sunday Night Football" game against the Vikings — will present Denver with important opportunities as the team looks to re-enter the wild-card race.
"Overall, from the overview of the team, I think we're a lot further down the road," Payton said. "Because of that, you get that much more invested and recognize the next opportunity at hand. We're going to play a national TV game a week from tonight and then another national TV game the following Sunday night. Those will both be important games for us as a team."
Payton said he addresses with his team the spotlight that comes with playing in prime time, and he noted that significant teams are the ones who are offered the chance to play in front of their peers and the nation.
"For us, it's twofold," Payton said. "We're playing good teams. Buffalo's been a perennial playoff team here, right on the cusp of being in a handful of Super Bowls and a team that we've got great respect for. [Buffalo head coach] Sean [McDermott]'s been fantastic there in what he's done. I think they present a huge challenge, especially in Buffalo in the month of November. Just do any October, November, December Google search [on games] at Buffalo; it's a tough place to play. And then to play them on Monday night.
"Those are great challenges. The competitor in you wants to play in front of large audiences in important games. These are those opportunities."
ASSESSING WILSON'S START TO THE SEASON
As Payton evaluates the first eight games of quarterback Russell Wilson's season, the Broncos' head coach said he and the team are impressed with a number of elements of Wilson's game. The veteran player has thrown 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions and has posted a pair of fourth-quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. His 16 touchdown passes rank fifth in the NFL — though three of the players above him have played an additional game — and he also ranks fifth in quarterback rating.
"I think this, those numbers are all good," Payton said. "I think the most important thing is how we're playing as a team and how we're playing as an offense. The number one job is to get us in the end zone. I think the things that we've seen I've been encouraged with are obviously the off-schedule plays. He does a great job of working the pocket, climbing the pocket. He makes a real good throw to [Jerry] Jeudy doing that last week [and] Courtland [Sutton] the same way. And then continuing to look at reducing the turnovers, managing the game the right way and understanding who we're playing and how we're playing it. All of those things, that transition for him so far — he's in his third offense now in three years. Every day [he's] working at it, working his tail off at it.
"To answer your question, I'd say, man, there's a lot of things that we've been impressed with that he's doing very well, and there's some things that obviously he wants to improve on and collectively we want to offensively."