ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos defense has dealt with suspensions, injuries and worked through a variety of lineups.
It has faced Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, Andrew Luck, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers (twice) and Ben Roethlisberger. And when the regular season drew to a close Sunday evening, the Broncos had played seven games against teams in this year’s playoff field and the team’s defense still did something it had never done before in the franchise’s history.
It finished No. 1 in total defense, allowing a league-low 283.1 yards per game, and was just one of two teams in the league -- the Seattle Seahawks were the other -- that didn’t allow an average of at least 300 yards per game this season. In all, the Broncos were No. 1 in total defense, sacks (52) and pass defense (199.6 yards allowed per game) while they also finished No. 3 in run defense and No. 4 in scoring defense.
“That’s really special," Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “Going into the game, that was something that we talked about. ... (Defensive coordinator) Wade (Phillips) and the coaches have come in and done a great job and the players responded to Wade’s scheme very well. I think the thing that I’m most proud of is the fact that there are a lot of guys involved in that. We’ve had our problems defensively health-wise, but everybody has pitched in."
The Broncos had just four players -- defensive end Malik Jackson, linebacker Von Miller, linebacker Brandon Marshall and cornerback Chris Harris Jr. -- start every game this season. Derek Wolfe (four games), T.J. Ward (one game) and Aqib Talib (one game) all served suspensions at some point during the season.
And on the injury front, DeMarcus Ware (five games), Ward (three games) and Darian Stewart (one game) are starters who all missed time with injuries. And Ware, who missed those five games with a back injury, left Sunday’s game with a knee injury, Stewart left with a hamstring injury and Harris suffered a shoulder injury -- all three players had MRIs on Monday.
That is to go with the fact Marshall played only early in the team’s first defensive series Sunday because of an ankle injury.
“We’ve been saying all year long, when guys are out, the guys behind those guys come and get the job done," Miller said. “That’s why our defense did what it’s done. Coach Wade got us in the right spot and no matter who was in there, they played."
That can especially be seen in the sack totals. While Miller led the team with 11 sacks -- he was the only player to reach double digits -- the Broncos led the league because they had 13 different players with at least one sack and five players reached at least five sacks.
The end result was the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles, in Week 2, was the only back to top 100 yards rushing against the Broncos this season and Roethlisberger was the only quarterback to top 300 yards passing.
And Sunday’s win gives the Broncos a much-needed postseason bye week. The Broncos won’t play until Jan. 17, against the lowest-remaining seed.
“We got a lot of guys banged up," Talib said. “We definitely need it, so it’s huge man. The extra seven days for recovery, that’s huge."
The Broncos have already faced two of their three possible playoff opponents -- the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers -- during the regular season, having gone 1-2 in those games. The team’s third possible playoff opponent is the Houston Texans, the team Kubiak coached for nine seasons before he was fired after the 2013 season.
““Let’s keep going, let’s keep going," Miller said. “We’ve got three games? Let’s knock these games out. Let’s put all the energy and effort into these coming up weeks. That’s what it’s about. We’ve worked hard to get to this point where we’re at, and we’ve just got to finish now."