Now, more than ever.
The defense continues to be a question mark, sometimes a small one, sometimes not so small, in any outside assessment of the team’s Super Bowl chances. Now, the players on that side of the ball, in a season that has been filled with varying “narratives," about the team are certainly sick of that one.
But the three other teams that remain in the AFC’s playoff field accounted for the Broncos’ three losses this season, and they did it, in large part, by finding a way to slow the Broncos’ next-level offense. And they did it by rushing for at least 118 yards in each of those games (including 177 by the Chargers on Dec. 12), and they did it with three-touchdown outings by quarterbacks Tom Brady (Patriots) and Andrew Luck (Colts).
“We’re just looking forward to playing good football," said Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. “What was, and whether it was good or bad really doesn’t matter going forward. We need to play well and help our football team win, that’s all it comes down to.”
With the list of marquee quarterbacks left in the postseason -- Brady, Luck and Philip Rivers in the AFC, and Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick in the NFC -- the Broncos have to find a way to make the opposing uber-thrower uncomfortable.
Enter Phillips, who led the Broncos in sacks this season after the team’s original plans up front on defense took a few hits along the way. There was the fax fiasco with Elvis Dumervil, there was Von Miller's six-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy to open the season, and there was Miller’s season-ending right knee injury in Houston last month.
Phillips closed out the regular season with 10 sacks, the third time he has hit the double-digit mark. He certainly delivered every bit the Broncos could have hoped for when they signed him to a one-year, $1 million deal during draft weekend last April.
Phillips facing his former team, the Chargers, adds a little spice for him in the Broncos’ playoff opener, and Denver needs him to regain his early season pace no matter what team is in front of him if their pass rush is going to be what they need it to be.
“For me, it doesn’t matter what team it is, it just happens that it’s the Chargers on the schedule," Phillips said. “But of course I’m excited -- it’s your old team. You always want to play against them. And they’re playing good football right now, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us, and it’s going to be a great challenge for them.”
Phillips, with an average of 48.3 snaps per game over the season’s first 10 games, had nine sacks in those games, including 2.5 in the season opener against the Baltimore Ravens and two in the win in Dallas. But the sacks didn’t come in the stretch drive, even with Miller in the lineup some of the time.
Phillips averaged 47.8 snaps per game over the final six games, and Phillips had one sack, against Rivers Dec. 12, in those six games.
Without Miller the Broncos might have to be a little more creative in their rush schemes, add a cornerback here, a safety there as they often choose to rush out of six- and seven-defensive back looks. And they certainly need players like Robert Ayers (5.5 sacks for the season, 4.5 of those in the first five games) and Malik Jackson (6.0 sacks) to be in the mix.
But many personnel executives believe Phillips will be the key moving forward, especially if the Broncos do move on past Phillips' former team.
“Yeah, it’s definitely a chip on my shoulder,’’ Phillips said. “I think I’ve had good games both times we played them. I always want to play well every game. Again, for me, it’s no hard feelings, because they’re a great organization. They brought me in, they drafted me and they treated me well. So I’m not saying anything negative at all. But of course, anytime you play against your old team, you always have a little chip on your shoulder, a little extra edge to get after them. And that is what’s going to happen .. It’s all about who wins now, who plays better now. We’re up for the challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”