ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- He is their silver-haired oracle, a veteran of almost four NFL decades who has found a way to bond with, mold and direct players who are, for the most part, less than half his age.
“That’s just Coach Wade," said Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller. “Coach Wade has seen it, done it, and when he tells me to be in a certain place and something good will happen, he’s just right. I think we were kind of what he was looking for, and he was kind of what we were looking for. He's one of us."
Wade Phillips turned 68 in June, and during his second career go-around with the Broncos, he led the team to a No. 1 ranking in total defense for the first time in the franchise’s history. The Broncos also finished No. 1 in pass defense, No. 1 in sacks, No. 3 in run defense and No. 4 in scoring defense, and they scored five touchdowns on defense.
It was the kind of season that got Phillips voted as the co-assistant coach of the year by the Pro Football Writers of America. (He shared the award with Hue Jackson, who was hired as the Cleveland Browns coach earlier this month.) And heading into Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots, Phillips is now one high-quality game plan from his first Super Bowl trip since he was Dan Reeves’ defensive coordinator for the Broncos’ 1989 Super Bowl team.
“It’s great for Wade," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak of the PFWA award. “He’s been a tremendous coach in this league, whether an assistant coach or head coach. That’s a great honor -- the job that he’s done with the defense, the job that the staff has done, really."
At the top of the to-do list for Phillips and the Broncos this week is addressing Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is seemingly at the top of his game, as he’s throwing more, and more quickly, than ever. Those who put the clock on Brady in the Patriots’ win over the Kansas City Chiefs in a divisional-round game last weekend showed that on average he took the snap and delivered a pass in just under two seconds.
That is far quicker than even the well-above-average pass-rusher can get to a quarterback. So, therein lies the Broncos’ challenge: to disrupt Brady and the timing of the Patriots’ offense, even if they can’t always get to him.
“The challenge with Brady is he’s one of the best quarterbacks playing in the National Football League," Miller said. “Sometimes he doesn’t even need an offensive line.
"Half of the time, he doesn’t even need a pass [protection]. He’s doing most of it himself. We’re going to have to be tight in the secondary, which I expect us to be."
As Broncos linebacker DeMarcus Ware added, “It means that I have to get off the ball a little quicker and I need to get to him in 1.8 seconds, to be honest with you. With a guy like Brady, you have to be able to have good corners, which we have that can give the pass-rushers a little extra time to get there. If he’s getting the ball off in 1.9 seconds, nobody is ever going to get to him. You can see that from the Kansas City game.
"You have to be able to have those corners to buy you just a little more time to get to him."
Phillips does have that as he has repeatedly called Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib the best tandem at cornerback he has had in his career. Harris has dealt with a left shoulder injury the past two weeks but said Thursday he expected to “be ready to go" Sunday against the Patriots.
In the Nov. 29 Broncos’ win over the Patriots, New England didn’t have wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola in the lineup. (The Patriots are 10-0, including last Saturday’s win over the Chiefs, when Edelman plays this season, and 3-4 when he doesn’t.) But the Broncos were without Ware during the last matchup. And safety T.J. Ward and nose tackle Sylvester Williams both left the game when they were injured on the Patriots’ first rushing attempt of the game.
But Phillips’ group sees it all as an opportunity. An opportunity to thank Phillips for, as Harris has said, “turning us loose and letting us make plays," an opportunity for a defense to power a champion.
“Definitely," Ward said. “We have to do it on the biggest stages in the most important games. That’s how you get remembered. That’s how players become legends and Hall of Famers."