ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --It has been a season-long ultimate performance for the defense, which heads into Week 17 at the cusp of being the best in Broncos history by most statistical measures.
For much of the season, the Broncos have been the league's pace-setters on defense. They've led in total yardage allowed per game -- which is the defining "total defense" statistic, but also yardage allowed per play and passing defense. They currently rank No. 2 in the league in rushing defense, just five yards behind the New York Jets, but on a per-carry basis, their rushing defense is the game's best, allowing just 3.2 yards per rush.
To lead the league in total defense, the Broncos need to allow 225 fewer yards to the Chargers than the Seahawks yield to the Cardinals on Sunday. (Seattle is the only team within 500 yards of the Broncos, who have surrendered 4,213 yards this season, and thus is the only other team with even a small chance of knocking the Broncos off their perch.)
Stay ahead of the 'Hawks, and the 2015 Broncos defense will do something its dominant forebears never did: finish atop the league charts in the total defense.
In 1977, the famed Orange Crush, at the apex of its powers, led the league in scoring defense and rushing defense, but only ranked 25th in passing defense, which led them to a No. 9 overall rank in total defense. Longtime defensive coordinator Joe Collier had some phenomenal units, but none ever finished higher than sixth in total defense (1978 and 1981).
In 2012, the Broncos finished second in the league in total defense. In 1989 -- Wade Phillips' first year as their defensive coordinator -- and 2014, they finished third.
Never first. And now, that's in their grasp.
"When we went into the year, we set all of our goals to be in the top-five, but our goal when I talked to them first was that we wanted to be the best," Phillips said. "We wanted to be the best in the league. Those guys have followed through with it."
And never has it been better than when it matters most: in close and late situations. The fourth-quarter letdown against the Steelers in Week 15 was the exception in a season that has seen big stops and takeaways when they were needed most.
"They have great resolve," Phillips said. "They really do. We've seen it happen time after time after time."
In Weeks 1-6, the defense had at least one takeaway in the last 7:30 of the fourth quarter every time. In the sixth game of that run, the defense also knocked the Cleveland Browns back 13 yards in three plays after they took over at the Denver 39-yard line in overtime and needed to gain just five to eight yards for a viable attempt at a game-winning field goal.
After a penalty-fueled hiccup late at Indianapolis in Week 9, the defense responded to its next close-and-late shot in Week 11 against the Bears, overcoming a questionable pass-interference call that set up a touchdown to stuff the Bears on their attempt at a game-tying two-point conversion.
One week later, the defense overcame the absence of three starters by that point -- previously injured OLB DeMarcus Ware, NT Sylvester Williams and safety T.J. Ward -- to send the Patriots into full retreat in overtime, with pressure leading to a sack of Tom Brady and a three-and-out that set up C.J. Anderson's game-winning jaunt on the subsequent series.
"Tom Brady and them were celebrating when they won the toss. This is one of these games where [the opponent says], 'We won the toss; we're going to go down and score.' We sack them and knock them backwards."
And then last week, the defense overcame its worst start of the season and dismantled the Bengals in the second half and overtime, using pressure to neutralize Cincinnati's running backs and harass AJ McCarron into hurried throws and, finally, a missed snap that DeMarcus Ware recovered.
"I try to get them to play like that all the time and say, 'Hey, the pressure's on you from the first play,'" Phillips said.
But even the best units can't be elite all the time. But greatness is defined by hitting that level when it matters most, and time after time, the Broncos defense has delivered.
"They've played that way all year," Phillips said. "I'm proud of that group."
As well he should be. The defense has carried the team through some struggles from its offense. But that unit has played at a league-average level in total offense, passing offense and rushing offense the last six weeks. With this defense, that might be enough to get the Broncos to all of their goals for this season.