It’s easy to find the line of demarcation where the Broncos’ paths to victory changed. Once Denver shifted gears by choice and eventually necessity from a historically great offense to a near-equally productive defense, the efforts featured less room for error.
But what’s transpired in the final minutes of countless Denver wins over the past two seasons adds to this defense’s budding resume.
The Chargers found out how difficult it can be to notch a game-tying or game-winning score off the Broncos’ defense, and the defending Super Bowl champions’ four-down stop on the 2-yard line placed another game into what’s become a sizable archive of saves, so to speak.
Like the bullpens that have propelled the Royals and Indians to the past three American League pennants, acquiring a late lead on the past few iterations of the Broncos’ defense has been remarkably difficult. And the team’s formula holding up Sunday without Aqib Talib or Brandon Marshall provided an extra degree of difficulty.
Of course, San Diego not attempting one run play from the 2-yard line — and thus trying to beat the Broncos where they’re best — did not play into the visitor’s hands. But Denver picked up its 13th one-score win (counting playoff games) since the start of 2015, when it became dependent on defensive bailouts.
Most of those games have required a save.
These escapes didn’t start once Wade Phillips took over the defense just as Peyton Manning’s physical skills had mostly eroded, but they’ve become possibly the team’s defining skill.
Some of the Broncos’ 2012 wins saw them run out to big leads before hanging on late, but those were more a product of the offense decelerating a bit too soon than an impenetrable defense. However, the foundation of what’s occurring today began to surface in 2014, when this defensive nucleus debuted.
The Colts and Chiefs each were in position to tie a game in Denver on their final drives in Weeks 1-2 of that season, with an injury-plagued Kansas City team reaching the Denver 2-yard line down seven. Pass deflections from Bradley Roby and Terrance Knighton ended those seven-point wins, and a Talib pick-six against Geno Smith silenced the Jets — although New York was deep in its own territory as it attempted a futile game-tying march — in what became a 14-point victory.
However, the hang-on-and-win style didn’t reappear for that team, but its revered successor turned those holds into a blueprint of sorts.
If we’re defining a football save by halting a potential game-tying or go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter or overtime — thus resulting in a win — the Broncos’ defense recorded nine last season. And some of their most memorable conquests did not technically qualify.
Denver’s defense received less run support, in baseball parlance, last season and needed turnover-created escape hatches to win five of their first six games. Each of their current starting secondary members forced the decisive takeaway — and this list does not recognize Roby’s scoop-and-score sequence in Kansas City since Denver was not leading.
The variety in which these preservation stops have occurred have kept the Broncos’ routine fresh.
Darian Stewart, Chris Harris and T.J. Ward either notched interceptions or forced fumbles at different sectors of the field (against the Ravens, Raiders and Vikings, respectively), and Ward’s blind-side pressure introduced the two-point conversion deterrence to this repertoire against the Bears with a game-saving run blitz.
Last season’s No. 1-ranked defense also included the modern-era-only walk-off fumble recovery — via DeMarcus Ware against the Bengals — and obviously completed its most memorable save by pressuring Tom Brady so much he could not find time to locate an open Rob Gronkowski in the AFC championship game’s seminal two-point play.
Von Miller finally provided a finishing maneuver in one of these efforts with his Week 2 strip-sack of Andrew Luck, closing out the Colts in one of the Broncos’ flashier endings during this run.
It’s an art the Broncos haven’t gotten much credit for crafting, but these repeat stops — with numerous talents serving as the designated closer — have been one of the main reasons for the team ascending to the championship stratum.
After all, one of the most notorious blown saves in NFL history occurred in Denver, causing John Elway to steadily remake his team so that kind of catastrophe wouldn’t happen again. Rahim Moore and Tony Carter’s poorly timed mishaps also came when Miller and Elvis Dumervil couldn’t pressure Joe Flacco, allowing him time to use his arm strength to put the Broncos’ less reliable secondary at risk.
Denver’s rebuilt pass rush played a role in almost every one of these final-drive-ending stops over these memorable 1 1/2 seasons, and Sunday did not deviate. But the Chargers’ finish proved significant despite the lack of a flashy finish because of the cogs involved.
Remember, the Broncos’ only two blown fourth-quarter leads since the start of 2015 came when their defense was missing key parts. Both Ward and Stewart weren’t available in last season’s Steelers loss, which featured a seven-point fourth-quarter Broncos edge turn into a seven-point Steelers victory, and Ward missed the Raiders tilt a week prior that saw Denver allow an early-fourth-stanza touchdown to enable an Oakland triumph — their first in this series since Week 1 of 2011.
Edge pressure from Ward impacted Philip Rivers’ first- and fourth-down throws, and a Ware pursuit forced the veteran quarterback into a second-down throwaway. The Chargers’ passer only put throws on target on third and fourth down, and the likes of Will Parks and Lorenzo Doss ensured they fell incomplete. Parks showed quality closing speed to help nullify an Antonio Gates touchdown, and Doss wasn’t fooled by Hunter Henry’s double-move attempt on the fourth-down breakup — a sharp contrast from Henry dizzying Broncos’ defenders in San Diego.
Being able to execute the familiar drill without key parts will help this defense going forward. Because regardless of the Broncos’ offense providing more breathing room this season, it’s still shown troublesome issues in both the ground and air departments.
But the NFL’s top safety net in the mid-2010s continues to bail a middling offense out. Having so many responsible hands involved in these efforts will only make future saves easier to finish.