It’s only fitting the Broncos defense was on the field at the end of their skirmish with the Bengals Monday night. With the game hanging in the balance and a playoff berth on the line, the defense was asked to seal the deal again. And true to form in 2015, it rose to the occasion. DeMarcus Ware hustled through the Cincinnati offensive line to recover a fumbled snap by AJ McCarron. He pounced on the ball to end overtime, and the Broncos were free to celebrate a come-from-behind victory and a fifth consecutive trip to the postseason. It was another massive play in a campaign full of massive plays for the Denver D, just another chapter of a familiar season-long story. But will the final chapter be a Super Bowl title? Can the Broncos ride their defense to the promised land?
Of course, the quarterbacks get the yeoman’s share of the attention in Denver. Peyton Manning is a future Hall of Famer who struggled through nine starts and is now trying to recover from a torn plantar fascia quickly enough to get back on the field this season. Brock Osweiler is the “next man up” showing confidence, leadership, and steady growth since he took over for Manning; but he’s still green. That leaves Super Bowl icon John Elway and his former backup Gary Kubiak in a precarious position as the quarterbacks who have to make decisions about the quarterbacks. Throw in the inconsistency of the Denver offense all season, no matter who’s taking snaps, and the Mile High narrative can easily turn myopic. But it’s a mistake to overlook the D in Denver.
The defensive roster is chock full of stars like Ware and Von Miller with 16.5 sacks between them; Chris Harris Jr., Aqib Talib, and T.J. Ward as the core of a secondary that’s tops in the NFL against the pass; and leading tacklers Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan. Denver has more sacks any other team in the league by sharing the wealth. Ten different players have recorded at least two sacks. They allow just 18.5 points per game with an aggressive, brash, physical style that dares opponents to beat them. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips prefers man coverage because he has the individual talent to pull it off. But he’s not afraid to mix it up. After a pair of lengthy first half touchdown drives by the Bengals, Phillips threw in some zone and disguised the coverage and blitzes a little more in the second half. It worked to perfection. The versatility, speed, and depth of his personnel give him freedom to be creative.
At the same time, the Denver offense resembles a roller coaster ride–ups and downs, twists and turns, exhilarating moments and moments that make fans want to throw up. Three times this season, the Broncos have rallied from 14-point deficits to win. But twice in December, they coughed up double-figure leads in the second half when they were shut out. They also scuffled through 25 straight drives without finding the end zone. A porous offensive line, spotty production from the run game, critical drops by the receivers and tight ends, and the quarterback issues all contribute to the wild inconsistency. Yet the Broncos earned their 11th victory, and they remain in the driver’s seat for the AFC West crown and a first-round bye. The defense is the stabilizing, steady force.
Elway was determined to build a rugged defense that could hold up its end of the bargain in 2015. He watched Peyton Manning break records and earn an MVP award on the way to Super Bowl XLVIII, only to witness decimation at the hands of an overpowering Seattle D. Last season, when Peyton got hurt and the offense faltered down the stretch, the defense wasn’t able to carry the team past the Colts in the divisional round of the playoffs. For the franchise to craft a different ending this winter, the defense can’t falter. There is very little margin for error.
Over and over this season, with Denver backed into a tight corner, the defense has come through–the interception in the end zone to squash the Ravens’ rally, the fumble return for a touchdown in the final 30 seconds to stun the Chiefs, the seven sacks against the Vikings, the fourth quarter pick 6 to bury the Raiders, the measly 77 yards allowed to Aaron Rodgers, and now the fumble recovery in overtime to survive the Bengals. Every single one of those moments has boosted the confidence of the Denver defenders, and their collective conviction is one of their greatest assets. They believe they can rise to the occasion, cover the sins of the offense, and bear the load. They’ll soon get their chance to prove it on the playoff stage. Only a matter of weeks until we find out if this defense can, in fact, win a championship.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.