DENVER — This was the time for Denver’s defenders to pound their chests and let the world know that they have some ballhawks and playmakers on that side of the ball, too.
The Broncos had just wrapped up a 24-17 playoff win over the Chargers, avenging their Week 15 loss to their division rival, holding them to 259 total yards and exorcising the demons from their gut-wrenching playoff choke to the Ravens a year ago.
So, Quentin Jammer, the Broncos’ defense obviously made a statement on Sunday. Right?
“Not really,” said Jammer, the Broncos’ 34-year-old cornerback. “Because you’ve got to finish the game.”
Jammer, a 12-year veteran, is wise. The Broncos may have opened as 7-point favorites over the Patriots for Sunday’s AFC Championship game (bettors quickly moved the line to 5½), but they won’t beat the Patriots if they play defense like they did Sunday against the Chargers.
Yeah, the stats look great. They sacked Philip Rivers four times, and held the run-heavy Chargers to just 65 yards on 18 attempts (3.6-yard average). And they allowed just 27 points over their final two games of the regular season.
Of course, it’s fair to mention that those two games came against the hapless Texans and Raiders. And that the Broncos no longer have their best defender, Von Miller, who had eight tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery he returned for a touchdown against the Patriots in late November.
And that the Broncos almost choked away Sunday’s playoff affair, like they did to Baltimore last January and to New England in Week 12, when the Patriots overcame a 24-0 halftime deficit to win 34-31 in overtime.
Hey, kudos to the Broncos for holding the Chargers to 73 total yards through three quarters. Star tight end Antonio Gates and impressive rookie receiver Keenan Allen were both kept off the stat sheet until midway through the third quarter.
But when the Chargers went 63 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, and then 80 yards for a touchdown, then recovered the onside kick and went 48 yards for a field goal to pull within 7 points, you weren’t the only one thinking, “Here we go again.”
“I think it was in everybody’s mind in the whole stadium,” Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. “Of course it was.”
This time, Peyton Manning bailed out the defense by icing the final 3:53 and converting on third and 17, third and 6, and third and 1.
Strangely, there was a little bluster coming from the Broncos’ locker room after the game, as if the defense had finally proven it can play at a championship level.
“I think we finally came together as a group and decided enough was enough,” Knighton said. “After the San Diego loss [in Week 15], we decided as a group it’s time to play our best ball. We showed that when we went to Houston, and it continued from there.”
OK, well, it’s one thing to beat Case Keenum and Terrelle Pryor, and quite another to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
And that Chargers’ offense on Sunday was hardly a juggernaut. It wasted four turnovers and let the Bengals hang around way too long in last weekend’s playoff victory, and then couldn’t even get the engine started until the fourth quarter on Sunday, when it was too little, too late.
The Patriots won’t have Rob Gronkowski on Sunday, like they did in the Week 12 matchup, but still shouldn’t be fazed much by a Denver defense that might not have top cornerback Chris Harris, who left Sunday’s game with ankle and knee injuries and led the team with three interceptions this season.
The Broncos didn’t watch much of the Patriots’ dismantling of the Colts on Saturday night — they had meetings and didn’t turn on the game until the Patriots were already up, 43-22 — but they are well aware of the challenge the Patriots present, even without Gronkowski.
“We’ll just focus on how they beat Indy,” Knighton said. “It’s a different team. Gronkowski was there last time we played and he’s not there now, so they’ll have some different wrinkles in their offense. That’s why they did a good job running the ball [Saturday].”
The Broncos went all out to slow down the Chargers’ three-headed running game of Danny Woodhead, Ryan Mathews, and Ronnie Brown, and likely will do the same against New England.
It sounds weird to say, but the Broncos’ best chance at success next Sunday might be to put the ball in Brady’s hands.
“A lot of teams when you line up against Tom Brady, you want to come out there with five DBs and stop the deep ball and things like that,” Knighton said. “But in the playoffs it’s about playing defense and running the ball, and that’s why we were successful today.”
What’s interesting is that the Broncos didn’t have too much to say about the Patriots in the postgame locker room.
“Well, I think I’m just going to enjoy this one first,” coach John Fox said. “It hasn’t sunk in. We’ll dig into that tomorrow.”
You would think that the embarrassing loss to the Patriots on national television would be the Broncos’ biggest motivation. And while there’s no doubt that the loss stings, the Broncos were really more concerned about avenging their Week 15 loss to the Chargers, who beat the Broncos on Denver’s turf.
“It’s not easy to forget, but honestly, I thought our Chargers loss at home was worse,” said Jammer, who replaced Harris in the lineup. “I thought that they just came in and just beat us, and I thought that that was the one that stuck with us a lot more.”
The Broncos certainly have a lot of respect for the Patriots. There’s probably an element of fear, as well, especially after the Patriots erased a 24-point deficit with such ease.
In fact, having a short memory and forgetting that Week 12 matchup might be the Broncos’ best chance.
And figuring out how to play defense in the fourth quarter might help, too.
“One thing I always say to the guys is, ‘Nameless and faceless souls’ — whoever lines up in front of us,” Knighton said. “We just wanted to prove that we can play at an elite level. But we need to see what we can do better to finish the game, not let it get interesting.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.