ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If the category was Super Bowl hopefuls and the question was what, exactly, was the biggest reason the 2013 Denver Broncos wouldn't win a title despite their never-seen-before output on offense, the answer from most of the Broncos' faithful, worry beads in hand, would almost certainly be swift.
It would be the Broncos' defense.
Some of that skepticism across the Front Range may be rooted in cold, hard facts, but some may simply be rooted in the transitive property of football doom as well. That the Broncos' defense was in the top five in virtually every major defensive category in the 2012 season, including No. 1 in sacks, No. 2 in yards allowed per game and No. 4 in points allowed per game, and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco still threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns on the way to a Ravens' 38-35 win in double overtime last January.
So, some feel, if the Broncos couldn't go deep into the playoffs with that defense, this year's is going to be a bit of a hurdle.
"I don't think we see it that way, even if some people do," said cornerback Chris Harris. "I've been saying I think we're tougher and a lot smarter compared to last year in how we scheme, how we're going to scheme up and play against teams. People are going to talk about the numbers, because people always talk about the numbers, but I know as players we feel like we're way more confident going into this year's playoffs than we were last year.”
Ah, the numbers. Oh, people are going to talk about those all right. Consider in the Broncos' last two playoff losses, to close out the 2012 and 2013 seasons respectively, the team has surrendered 83 points, 694 passing yards and nine touchdown passes to Flacco and Tom Brady combined, to go with just one interception and one sack in those two games.
The Broncos have also spent most of the season among the bottom dwellers in the league's defensive rankings, having only dug their way out slightly over the last month. Denver entered the postseason 19th in the league in yards allowed (356.0 per game), 22nd in points allowed (24.9) and tied for 13th in sacks (41). And all of their numbers were bolstered with some stingy performances in recent weeks against some of the league's have-nots -- 240 total yards by the Texans in Week 16 to go with just 255 yards by the Raiders this past Sunday.
"We know we've played well," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio after Friday's practice. "We've been very stingy in the run, we've gotten people off the field, we've held the point totals down and we expect to play good defense. It's been closer to what we're looking for the last few weeks and that's a good sign for us as we get ready to go into these playoffs."
But no question it has been a bumpy ride. There was the matter of linebacker Von Miller, having opened the season with a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy and now having finished the regular season on injured reserve with a torn right ACL. And that defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson, a key part of the run fronts, is on injured reserve with a hip injury.
Or that Champ Bailey played in just five games this season because of a foot injury. Or that the Broncos' defense has seemed unable to regain its mojo of the 2012 regular season since Elvis Dumervil's contract arrived a few minutes too late on the fax machine just before the team released him because of the tardy document.
And while yards allowed is not something most defensive coordinators believe is a worthy yardstick on defense, it is worth noting just four teams have won a Super Bowl ranked below No. 20 in that category and that one of them had Peyton Manning at quarterback. But the 2011 New York Giants (No. 27), the 2009 New Orleans Saints (25th), the 2006 Indianapolis Colts (No. 21), with Manning at quarterback, and the 2001 Patriots (No. 24) won the Super Bowl after a season ranked below 20th.
That Patriots team, however, finished sixth in points allowed that season (17.0) to play well above those yards allowed. The '06 Colts were 23rd in points allowed at 22.5 per game, the '09 Saints were 20th in points allowed at 21.3 and the '11 Giants were 25th in points allowed at 25.0.
A small sample size to be sure, but certainly one the Broncos are wrestling with at the moment. However, Del Rio said this week, he believes his unit is playoff worthy.
"I think we're ready to play good defense, we've got a good group," Del Rio said. "We've played really well in spurts. I think the worst thing we've done this year is play with a big lead, maybe giving up a little bit of garbage points and yards and ... that would only affect rankings. We're 13-3; we're as good as anybody in the league. We feel good about the work we're putting in and we're anxious to get into the single elimination tournament."
Their biggest task, now with Bailey having solidified what the Broncos can do in some of their specialty packages upon his return to lineup over the past two weeks, will be to consistently generate a pass rush without Miller in the formation. Shaun Phillips leads the team in sacks with 10, but he's had just one in the past six games.
Robert Ayers has 5.5 sacks, good for third on the team, but just one of those -- against Houston in Week 16 –-- came after Miller returned from his six-game suspension. Those two players have to find a way to win some 1-on-1 matchups in whatever becomes of the postseason, to force opposing offensive lines to have to think about a double-team somewhere across the Broncos defensive front.
Also, while the Broncos have generated some quality pressure by bringing defensive backs out of formations with five, six or even seven defensive backs, those come with a risk of leaving bare spots in coverage behind. And in an AFC playoff field that includes the likes of Brady, Philip Rivers, Andrew Luck and Alex Smith at quarterback, the veteran quarterbacks will be more difficult to fool with those kinds of plays.
"It's all about how you play now," Harris said. "The numbers re-set when the playoffs start. We'll be ready to go."