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Broncos are right back in the playoff race after their first AFC West road win since 2019

Sean Payton might be the only coach since the 1950s to hold up the Detroit Lions as a shining example in the NFL.

But that's exactly what Payton did when the Broncos stumbled to a 1-5 start this season, similar to Dan Campbell's 1-6 start with Detroit a year ago before the Lions bounced back to finish 9-8, then carried that momentum into 2023, where they now sit atop the NFC North at 9-4.

"There's a fine line here between a groove and a rut,” Payton said back on Oct. 18. “You have to take a look at Detroit a year ago, sitting 1-6. ... There's a grit element involved. Mental toughness. Here they are now as one of these teams in contention. ... We're kind of in that position.”

Especially now.

The Broncos' 24-7 shellacking of the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday gave them six wins in seven games and made them one of six AFC teams sitting at 7-6. They're also just a game behind the first-place Kansas City Chiefs, losers of four of six, in the AFC West.

Ahead of the Broncos' visit to Detroit this weekend, Payton again expressed his admiration for the Lions and the work Campbell has done to change the team's losing culture.

“It goes back to the relationship I have with their head coach,” Payton said Monday. “I was in New York when we drafted Dan and I was the offensive coordinator and then when I was in Dallas I was part of the reason we were able to sign Dan as a free agent. And then eventually I signed Dan to the Saints. He got injured. That's where his career ended. And then eventually I was able to sign him as an assistant coach.

“And so he's a close friend and a fantastic coach and someone I've always enjoyed working with,” Payton said. “And so at 1-5, we just pointed to a similar situation a year ago. In other words, a team which was 1-6 which was able to flip the script.”

Payton's team has displayed many of the same qualities as Campbell's in its turnaround over the last two months: more gnash than flash and usually winning gritty, not pretty.

The Broncos' win Sunday was their first on the road in the AFC West in four years and their first victory at SoFi Stadium, where their embarrassing 51-14 loss to the Rams last Christmas Day led to Nathaniel Hackett's firing.

During their hot streak, the Broncos have beaten Andy Reid for the first time in eight years, Patrick Mahomes for the first time in 13 tries and Justin Herbert on the road for the first time in four attempts.

Come January, they'll get another chance to beat the Raiders for the first time since that franchise moved to Las Vegas following the 2019 season.

Of course, the drought they'd really like to break is their seven-year stretch without making the playoffs, and if current trends hold, they might just end the Chiefs' seven-year stranglehold on the division, too.

WHAT’S WORKING

About the only thing consistently clicking on offense is Russell Wilson's connection with WR Courtland Sutton, who seems to make a highlight-worthy TD catch on a weekly basis. This one was a one-handed, 46-yard grab while getting pulled down by CB Michael Davis.

On defense, coordinator Vance Joseph was relentlessly aggressive against Herbert and his backup, Easton Stick. After a hiccup at Houston, Denver's defense returned to form with a season-best eight pass breakups, six sacks by six players and two takeaways.

WHAT NEEDS WORK

Making their second-half opening drives a point of emphasis last week didn't break the Broncos of their doldrums coming out of halftime. They went three-and-out for the fifth consecutive week. In all, they've gotten the ball first 11 times coming out of the break and have nine punts, a missed field goal and a blocked field goal to show for it.

STOCK UP

PJ Locke has played lights-out during Kareem Jackson's second suspension, which ends after this weekend's game at Detroit. Locke became the first safety in team history to record a sack in three consecutive games when he strip-sacked Stick in the fourth quarter.

STOCK DOWN

Payton's second-half play-calling coming out of halftime and the Broncos' offensive execution to start the third quarter. Denver hasn't had a single first down on its opening drive of the second half since Oct. 29 at Kansas City.

INJURIES

Payton wouldn't give an update on OLB Nik Bonitto's knee injury. He said G Quinn Meinerz was fine and was returning to Denver after staying in Southern California with a rapid heartbeat Sunday night.

KEY NUMBERS

1-for-18 — The Broncos held the Chargers without a first down on a dozen third-down chances and stopped them five times out of six on fourth down.

NEXT STEPS

The Broncos cannot afford another slip-up, even against an NFC team in the Lions. Had they taken care of business a week ago at Houston, they'd be in a much more comfortable position in the playoff race.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

Arnie Stapleton, The Associated Press