Broncos defense has another chance to raise its playoff profile

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos have won the AFC West title in each of the previous four seasons.

And in all four of those years, the Broncos defense eventually found itself facing one of the league’s marquee quarterbacks in the postseason, and those defenses simply weren’t up to the challenge. It was Tom Brady who ended the Broncos' 2011 season, Joe Flacco finished off 2012, Russell Wilson ended 2013 and Andrew Luck bounced the Broncos out of the postseason last January.

In those four games combined, those quarterbacks threw 13 touchdown passes and were intercepted just three times. And those high-profile passers were largely unencumbered as they went about their business; the Broncos sacked the four quarterbacks one time combined in those four games -- Flacco in the overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close out the 2012 season.

Last January’s loss to the Indianapolis Colts was so lackluster, so listless, it spurred a coaching change. And now the Broncos have landed in Sunday’s AFC divisional-round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with their fifth consecutive division title in hand, another 12-win season and another chance to make it right.

“I think we’re more dialed in,’’ Broncos safety T.J. Ward said. “I think we’re more focused, especially after losing last year in the first round at home. We don’t want to let that happen again. We’re dialed in all the way.’’

Last January, the Broncos weren’t particularly aggressive in rushing Luck while the team’s fans, as well as cornerback Chris Harris Jr., openly wondered, even months later, why Harris wasn’t matched up on Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who had four catches for 72 yards in the game. Overall, the Broncos have had good defenses in their recent run -- they finished No. 2 in total defense in 2012 and No. 3 in 2013 -- but those defenses have not, in general, risen in the biggest moments.

It’s why the Broncos say this group is different. This year’s version was the first in franchise history to finish a season No. 1 in total defense. The Broncos were also No. 1 in pass defense, as well as No. 1 in sacks to go with No. 3 in run defense and No. 4 in scoring defense. The team also scored five defensive touchdowns, and the Broncos were 9-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was the only passer to top 300 yards passing against the Broncos this season, and Jamaal Charles, way back in Week 2, was the only 100-yard rusher against the Broncos.

Through the team’s playoff bye last week and into this week’s practices, the Broncos defensive players have vowed things would be different this time around. They are healthy -- Ward, safety Darian Stewart (hamstring) and Harris (left shoulder) have all practiced this week.

And DeMarcus Ware, who left the regular-season finale with a left knee injury, has practiced this week, and on Thursday, he wore a brace on his ailing knee.

“When I first got here, they had been in the Super Bowl, so there was a sense of urgency of getting back,’’ Ware said. “Now you lost that last year and you’re going back to the playoffs again and there’s more of a sense of determination and a sense of excitement. You can see it in the guys. You can see sort of the tenacity that the guys are sort of bringing in practice. You see a little bickering here or there and guys pushing each other around because they really want it. I didn’t really see that last year.''

And in three of the past four playoff losses, the Broncos simply didn’t answer in the early portions of those games. Last season, the Colts led 14-10 at halftime, 21-10 at the end of the third quarter.

To close out the 2013 season, the Seattle Seahawks led 22-0 at halftime, 36-0 late in the third quarter and won the Super Bowl by 35 points, 43-8. And in the postseason following the 2011 season, the Patriots had a 35-7 lead at halftime.

“I think every opportunity is your last opportunity because you don’t know when the next one is going to come,’’ Ware said. “We sort of talked about every year, like last year we said, ‘This right here is the team that’s going to get us there.’ But we didn’t make it. Now you have another opportunity. Usually they don’t come around two years straight.’’

The Broncos defense will have to play with some flexibility on Sunday, given Roethlisberger is a question mark with a right shoulder injury, while wide receiver Antonio Brown has a concussion and running back DeAngelo Williams is dealing with a foot injury. Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said the team has “alternate plans’’ to deal with who does, or doesn’t play, for the Steelers.

“You’ve got to go into the game thinking you’re going to get what they can do the best. He’s obviously one of the best, if not the best, in the league as far as passing, throwing the ball, and he proved it against us," Phillips said of Roethlisberger. "I don’t think we can go into the game and say, ‘Well, he’s not going to be able to do that.’ If something were to occur like that or somebody else in there, like I said, we’d have to adjust, but we don’t expect that.”