ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Brian Dawkins soothed smarting egos with a spontaneous pep talk.
Usually not one for rah-rah speeches, the Denver Broncos captain got in front of the team Monday and basically broke it down like this: They’re in the playoffs and that’s all that matters.
Granted, the Broncos (8-8) enter the postseason with hardly any momentum after closing out the regular season with three straight losses and needing help just to sneak into the party. Even more, Tim Tebow‘s late-game magic has disappeared.
Still, their season has been extended and anything can happen.
Just last year, the Seattle Seahawks, who entered the playoffs with a 7-9 record, stunned the New Orleans Saints in the first round. That’s become the Broncos’ source for inspiration as they prepare to host the favored Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) on Sunday.
“Look at Seattle a year ago when they got in it. They made a lot of noise,” said Willis McGahee, the team’s leading rusher with 1,199 yards. “That’s what we plan on doing.”
Dawkins’ conversation seemed to snap the Broncos out of their funk following a disheartening 7-3 loss to Kyle Orton and the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday. The mood in the locker room on Monday was more mellow than miffed, more focused than faltering.
But that lecture by Dawkins may just be his biggest contribution in these playoffs. He missed Sunday’s game with a neck injury and his status for the game against the Steelers is uncertain.
The Broncos head into their first playoff game in six years with a limited offense – and not just because Tebow is under center.
“I don’t think we’ll miss a beat,” running back Lance Ball said. “Russ is a great leader for the O-line, definitely in the offensive room. I know Russ is going to go out there and give 100 percent.”
With Larsen possibly out, the Broncos may turn to fullback Austin Sylvester, who was signed last week but was deactivated against the Chiefs, forcing Denver to use multiple tight-end sets after Larsen went down.
“It’s my job to be confident,” Sylvester said. “If I’ve got to stay a little extra and study, then no big deal.”
Should Sylvester be on the field, his primary task will be this: Keeping Pittsburgh defenders away from Tebow.
That’s hardly an easy assignment as the Steelers boast the top overall defense in the league. They’ve been particularly stingy against the pass, allowing a league-low 171.9 yards per game.
Tebow definitely has his work cut out for him. The unconventional quarterback is coming off a performance against Kansas City in which he completed just 6 of 22 passes for only 60 yards. He also fumbled with the team inside the red zone and threw a late interception.
“He’s not going to have a great game every week,” McGahee said. “That’s our job, to give him a pat on the back like, `Man, don’t worry about it. That’s behind us. We’re in the playoffs. Start fresh, come this week.’”
Coach John Fox doesn’t pin the blame for a stumbling passing game on Tebow’s erratic left arm.
“There are a lot of moving parts to the passing game. You’ve got protection. You’ve got route-timing. You’ve got to throw the ball in sometimes tight windows,” Fox said. “So that’s something (where) we’ve had our moments this season, and we’ll just continue to try to improve. It’s not just the quarterback.”
Tebow certainly won’t have much time to search for his targets. The Steelers fly to the football and safety extraordinaire Troy Polamalu is always lurking.
“We know they’re a tough football team,” wide receiver Eddie Royal said. “They’re going to come in and play physical. That’s their style of football. We’re going to have to match that. It’s going to be a tough, hard-fought game. We’re going to be ready for it.”
Linebacker Wesley Woodyard couldn’t agree more. The speech by Dawkins hit the right note.
“Coming from Dawk, everything holds weight,” Woodyard said. “When he does say whatever he has to say, everybody’s ears open and eyes are in front paying attention to him.
“He’s one of those guys who can get us on track.”
By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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