Denver defense faces its biggest challenge

Philip Rivers is sacked by Broncos defensive end Philip Rivers is sacked by Broncos defensive end Jeremy Mincey in the first quarter of the AFC division playoff game. (Jan. 12, 2014) Photo Credit: AP Photo Jack Dempsey

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DENVER - Throughout a season in which the Denver Broncos allowed 399 points, there's been a common joke that their best player on defense is Peyton Manning.

The theory, of course, is that as long as Manning and the record-setting offense can light up the scoreboard or chew up the clock, the defense won't be on the field giving up points.

"We go out there and lay it on the line, so when you hear stuff like that, you tend to get mad, but you can't let it affect you,'' cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said.

The Denver defense will try to brush aside the criticism Sunday when the Broncos host Tom Brady and the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

"We've had our ups and downs this year, but right now we're focused on New England and we're trying to play big,'' rookie defensive tackle Sylvester Williams said. "We want to go out there and prove that this defense is going to help us win this championship.''

In fairness to the players on defense, they've had to alter their lineup all season.

Standout pass rusher Von Miller missed the first six games after being suspended for violating the NFL's drug policy. He came back in Week 7, but on Dec. 22 in Houston, he tore the ACL in his right knee and is out for the season.

The Broncos also have played almost all season without 12-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. He suffered a foot injury during the preseason and has played in only six of the team's 17 games, the last three in a limited role.

Four other starters -- linemen Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson, safety Rahim Moore and cornerback Chris Harris -- are out for the year. Harris tore his ACL last Sunday.

"No team that has won the Super Bowl or been there hasn't been through adversity,'' defensive tackle Terrence Knighton said. "It's just crazy with us -- it's cornerstone positions. I think it's molded us into a good team.''

Although the regular-season statistics weren't great -- 24.9 points and 356.0 yards allowed per game -- the Broncos have come together on defense in recent weeks.

They've held three consecutive opponents to 17 or fewer points and fewer than 260 yards. Granted, two of those were Houston and Oakland, but they were positive results.

So despite losing half of their best defenders, the Broncos seem to have hit their stride lately. "You have to take your game up another level,'' Rodgers-Cromartie said of making up for the personnel losses. "I think everybody has to come out and play that much harder.''

They'll have to step it up even more against Brady. The three-time Super Bowl champion is 7-0 with 17 touchdowns and no interceptions during his career against defenses coached by Jack Del Rio, now the Broncos' defensive coordinator. That includes a 34-31 overtime win over the Broncos on Nov. 24, when Brady rallied the Pats from a 24-0 halftime deficit.

"I just think he's a good player, prepares hard,'' Del Rio said. "For us, we're preparing ourselves to go out and play good football, and that's all we can control.''

No, this defense will never be mentioned in the same breath with the 1985 Chicago Bears, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or Denver's Orange Crush defense of the 1970s.

The Broncos wouldn't mind being compared to the 2011 Giants, though. That team gave up 400 points -- the most ever by a Super Bowl champion -- yet played exceptional defense throughout the playoffs en route to the championship.

"We tend to get looked over,'' Rodgers-Cromartie said. "That's what we're trying to establish in this second season, just trying to establish a name for ourselves and just going out there and playing fast football.''

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