Despite what fan adulation and ceaseless television chatter indicated, the 52-year-old NFL team at the eastern base of the Rockies did not change its name to "Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos" this season.
As the hysteria over the second-year NFL quarterback spiked in November and December, even Tebow knew that the team's success rested at least as much on the shoulders of its defence. That unit held opponents to 15 or fewer points five times during a 7-1 run from Oct. 23 to Dec. 11, and supplied all three Broncos players on the AFC's Pro Bowl roster.
Tebow led the publicized comebacks, but when he was asked whether he felt the Broncos were his team, he rattled off the names of teammates – and the first ones he named were on defence.
"I feel like this is Champ Bailey's team, this is Brian Dawkins's team," he said, adding the name of offensive guard Chris Kuper to the list seconds later. "These are guys that have been here for a while and led us on this run. I think they're the big reason that we're here and playing in the playoffs."
The Broncos improved from worst to first in the AFC West, despite scoring more than 20 points only three times in the 11 weeks since Tebow supplanted Kyle Orton as the starting quarterback. Defence was the primary reason the Broncos soared, but when they struggled, the defence was also a root cause of the team's problems, particularly in the first five weeks of the season and in a 41-23 loss to the New England Patriots on Dec. 18.
The defence is also likely to determine if the Broncos have a chance of upsetting the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday's AFC wild-card playoff game in Denver.
Denver's 1-4 start to the regular season and 0-3 finish are linked by defensive injuries. During those weeks, five starters missed two or more games. In the 7-1 stretch, the starting defensive lineup missed only one game – when the rookie linebacker Von Miller sat out a 35-32 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Dec. 4, after undergoing surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right thumb.
Miller returned the next week wearing a club cast on his right hand and forearm; a week later, he changed to one that left his fingers free to move. His production has suffered; after recording 4 1/2 sacks and 31 tackles during four games in November – when he was the AFC's defensive rookie of the month – he mustered only one sack and seven tackles in four games after returning.
After spending the previous two weeks refusing to use the injury as an excuse, Miller on Wednesday acknowledged the problems it has caused.
"I'm coming off the ball playing on the defensive line," he said. "The first thing you strike is your hand. I still feel like I can get it done; it's just that there's a lot more thinking involved in how I place it."
Miller has pins in his thumb that will not be removed until after the playoffs, and will not be able to lift weights until after that procedure takes place. His struggles crested in last Sunday's 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, when Broncos coaches pulled him from every-down work.
"Like other young players, he makes mistakes," head coach John Fox said. "Von played two-thirds of the game. He's doing fine; we have others who can play, too."
Miller handled the de-emphasis without complaint.
"I don't think it's a re-proving or anything like that," he said. "They know what type of player I am and know what type of player I can be. Unfortunately, I haven't been the same-type player. I don't like to make excuses; I still feel like I can go out there and make those plays, but we've got to do what's best for the team."
New York Times News Service