ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — DWIs. Drugs. Injuries. Illnesses. Ambulances. Surgeries.
The Denver Broncos have seen it all in this drama-filled season.
Yet, they’re 12-3 and one win from securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs for the second straight year, fulfilling a mission they set out to accomplish after their playoff pratfall against Baltimore last January.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” wide receiver Eric Decker said Thursday. “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve had to weather the storm week in and week out. It’s a testament to everybody if we can finish out the season strong with a win this Sunday and go into the playoffs with some momentum.”
The Broncos need 18 points against the Raiders (4-11) to become the highest-scoring team in league history and 28 to become the first 600-point team.
They’ve transcended their troubles despite an injury epidemic that has claimed Rahim Moore, Kevin Vickerson, Champ Bailey, Wes Welker, Ryan Clady, Derek Wolfe, Wesley Woodyard and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for a combined 43 games, testing their depth and fortitude.
The latest casualty is star linebacker Von Miller, who tore up his right knee at Houston last weekend and will undergo surgery within the week that will sideline him until summertime.
“I obviously feel bad about losing Von and feel bad for Von, but this team has faced adversity all season and when some of your top players are down … everybody else has to step up,” Peyton Manning said. “We’ve done that all year and we’ll have to continue to have to do that again this week.”
The Broncos seem to have a new crisis every week.
After two team executives were suspended for drunken driving arrests on the eve of training camp, Miller was slapped with a six-game drug suspension to start the season. Clady signed a $52.5 million contract in July and went on IR in Week 2. Bailey’s missed a career-high 11 games. Welker had two concussions in a four-week span and hasn’t played since Dec. 8.
Coach John Fox needed open-heart surgery and during his month-long absence, a backup offensive lineman quit the team, Moore needed an emergency operation to save his left leg and Wolfe had a seizure-like episode on the team bus.
Wolfe practiced on Christmas Day for the first time since Nov. 29 and promptly came down with the flu and was sent home sick Thursday.
“You have to keep pushing forward regardless of what’s in front of you because nobody is going to stop and wait for us to catch up,” Bailey said. “We have got to keep going, keep working. Everybody has got to stay confident in what we’ve got on the field and hopefully things will work out.
“You can’t take your eyes off the prize.”
The Broncos began the season in scramble mode because of Miller’s drug suspension and they’ll finish the same way now that he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament Sunday in Houston.
“He’s one of our better players. You’d love to have him. He’s not available, so we’ll do what we always do here and that’s next man up and keep rolling,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “That’s what it is. He’s a great player. He’ll be back at some point next year. And this year, we just need to carry on with who we have.
“And the fact that we did go through it earlier in the year, we have a little bit of an understanding of what it’s going to take. And not just one guy can fill his role because he does a lot of different things. It takes more than one guy and we understand that and we’ll work at it accordingly.”
The 2011 Defensive Rookie of the Year wasn’t the same dominant, disruptive player when he returned from his banishment but he flashed greatness at times and still commanded constant double-teams.
The Broncos will continue to rely on Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and recently signed Jeremy Mincey to rush the passer. Phillips has 10 sacks so far, 1½ shy of his career high, and Ayers has a career-best 5½ sacks.
In the base defense, they’ll rely once again on Nate Irving, who had a spectacular game after Miller got hurt.
The Broncos didn’t have to look far to replace Miller on the roster, promoting weakside linebacker Brandon Marshall from their practice squad to play on special teams.
“Part of me thought they would try to bring in another pass-rusher. But who’s out there in Week 17?” Marshall said. “I’m elated they thought enough of me to put me up while we’re making a Super Bowl run.”
BY ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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