All last summer, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and new secondary coach Bob Slowik emphasized one thing to their players: Get the ball, not just the man. If they want to beat the Patriots Saturday night, they'd better give them a refresher course in that philosophy.
No team has had as remarkable a turnover-fueled postseason run as the defending Super Bowl champions since 2001, when their 10-game winning streak began. Since that first snowy victory over the Raiders -- which ironically resulted in part from the turnover that was not a turnover -- New England is a phenomenal plus-21 in postseason turnover differential, having snatched the ball from its opponents 27 times in those 10 games while coughing it up only six times.
That trend continued Saturday night against the Jaguars, against whom they did not make a turnover while forcing two -- and returning one of them, Asante Samuels's interception, for the game's final touchdown. Such plays are what Coyer has wanted to see from his defense in Denver, and this season he finally got it after a major change in emphasis.
Denver finished second in the NFL in turnover margin at plus-20, trailing only the Bengals, who entered the playoffs plus-24 but left after going minus-2 against the Steelers Sunday. Connections? Everyone in football will tell you so.
A year ago, Denver finished 24th in the NFL in turnovers at minus-9, the major reason Coyer and coach Mike Shanahan felt they finished as only a 10-6 wild-card entry in the playoffs despite boasting the league's fifth-rated offense and fourth-best defense. While quarterback Jake Plummer was too often part of the problem himself, Coyer's defense simply seemed unable to do what New England's so often has done in postseason play, which is dislodge the football from the man charged with retaining it.
But this year has been different. Denver enters the divisional playoff round having intercepted nearly twice as many passes as a year ago (20 to 12), while recovering 16 fumbles. At least some of that turnaround, the Broncos believe, has been fueled not so much by an improved pass rush and defensive line play from the four retreads from Cleveland that they imported and retrofitted but rather from a series of drills Slowik and Coyer had them going through nearly every practice, including one in which passes are thrown at their less-than-glue-fingered defensive backs while another player waves his hands in the player's face.
They also did a series of drills similiar to what the Patriots have been doing for years, with an emphasis on ripping the ball loose from running backs as they're being tackled and tipping passes from one player to another. Slowik also had his players do running drills to tire them out before putting them through turnover drills, the theory being that most turnover opportunities come later in games when players are tired and often less focused.
''This is our third year discussing turnovers, and it'll be the difference between being a great team and a so-so team," Coyer said on the NFL's website this summer. ''You look at our turnover ratio last year (minus-9) and we should have won about five games."
Whatever the reason, the results are in. The Broncos went 13-3, the second-best record in the conference, and were second in turnover margin as well because Coyer and Slowik finally created the kind of defense the Patriots admire -- one that is attacking everything.
That seems likely to be their approach again Saturday night, but this time they will be facing a predatory defense as well, one that has had far more success over the long term than the Broncos in forcing the game-altering turnovers Coyer and New England defensive coordinator Eric Mangini pine for.
Coyer has said all season that a somewhat better pass rush has been part of the difference for the Broncos. But an increased push up front, coupled with Slowik's drills and Coyer's constant harping on the need to do more than make tackles, got the Broncos what they were seeking.
Last August, defensive back Nick Ferguson spoke about what they were trying to accomplish when he told the Colorado Springs Gazette, ''If we can get some of those extra turnovers in some of these close games, we win the game, our record is better, we get a home playoff game, all that stuff changes."
Four and a half months later, that's exactly the scenario the Broncos are facing, hosting the Patriots at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium after a bye week. It is a comfortable place for the Broncos, one where their fans are raucous, the thin air works to their advantage, and Plummer has gone 19-3 as a starter since arriving with his own checkered turnover record in Arizona.
Plummer was once so erratic that even after two seasons of improvement with the Broncos, his career statistics still showed him throwing more interceptions (141) than touchdowns (132). That number finally reversed itself this year, as he threw 18 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. That is a dropoff of nine touchdown throws from a year ago but also of 13 interceptions after an offseason in which Shanahan forced Plummer to watch every one of his 2004 throws while harping on him to take fewer chances with the football.
Shanahan's offseason work with Plummer (who now has thrown 59 touchdown passes and only 34 interceptions during his three years in Denver) and Coyer's heightened emphasis on forcing turnovers has produced the desired results.
Saturday night comes the hard part. That's when they must find a way to continue doing those things while much of the football world awaits an inevitable Plummer meltdown, a return to his error-prone self, against an opponent that has become the most dominating team of the new millennium by doing better than anyone else exactly what the Broncos have been emphasizing and Plummer has been trying to avoid all season.
To beat the world champions, the upstart Broncos very likely will have to beat the Patriots at their own game. A midwinter game called Turnovers on Ice.