As 2013 dwindles down to days, Von Miller must believe better years are ahead.
Miller's nightmarish season is finished. Tests on Monday confirmed the Broncos' fears after their 37-13 victory Sunday at Houston: The star linebacker has a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
"It's a blow," coach John Fox said Monday, "much like losing a guy like (offensive tackle) Ryan Clady earlier in the season. But our guys will deal with it."
Miller suffered the injury to his knee during the first quarter Sunday. He was coming in on a pass rush from left end when he received a chip block from Texans tight end Ryan Griffin. Miller collapsed immediately and clutched his right knee.
Miller will have to wait a week or two for the swelling to go down before undergoing surgery. The normal recovery time is six to nine months, which means he won't be back until the start of training camp in late July at the earliest. The expectation is Miller will be back by the 2014 season opener.
Meanwhile, the Broncos are trying to win the Super Bowl this season, an accomplishment Miller publicly guaranteed back in March.
It has been one thing after another since. In May, Miller learned there was an issue with one of his drug tests that eventually led to a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy. In the midst of his suspension appeal, Miller was issued warrants for missing court appearances on speeding violations. The Broncos went 6-0 during his absence, and upon his return he struggled to regain his all-pro form.
Miller had five sacks in the 10 games he played, well below the standard he set in his first two seasons, when he combined for 30 sacks and made the AFC's Pro Bowl team each year.
"We've been through a lot of adversity on the defensive side of the ball," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. "We're missing a lot of guys. We still have to keep that 'next man up' mentality. Nate Irving, I think he'll come in and do a solid job. But a guy like Von Miller, you can't replace what he can do on the field."
If the Broncos are to back up Miller's guarantee without him and win the Super Bowl, it will require a remarkable display of resiliency. After quarterback Peyton Manning, a case can be made the Broncos' next two best players are Miller and Clady. Both are finished for the season. Clady suffered a Lisfranc tear in his foot during the second game of the season.
The Broncos also have lost starting defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson to a season-ending hip injury. Free safety Rahim Moore was put on the designated-to-return injured reserve list after emergency surgery five weeks ago to correct a circulatory condition in his lower left leg. Moore can be activated for the playoffs, but only if he receives medical clearance. The Broncos also have been playing without starting defensive lineman Derek Wolfe after his seizurelike incident last month. And slot receiver Wes Welker missed the past two games and has yet to be cleared from a second concussion he received two weeks ago.
The Broncos remain hopeful that Wolfe and Welker will be available to play in their playoff opener Jan. 11 or 12. Despite all of their setbacks, the AFC West champions (12-3) are in position to clinch the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed with a win Sunday at Oakland (4-11).
"The reason I would have believed that we would be in the position we're in, even missing some key guys that really mean a lot to this team, is our depth," said tight end Julius Thomas. "Whether it's ones or the twos or the threes, you're like, 'Man, that guy out there can play.' "
When Miller went down in the Houston game, he was replaced in the Broncos' base defense by Irving at strongside linebacker. In the passing-down substitution packages, the Broncos rotated Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and newcomer Jeremy Mincey into Miller's defensive end position.
The Broncos are optimistic Miller will fully recover from his injury because there is no other damage to the knee besides the torn ACL.
A look at the Broncos' growing list of starting players lost to injury on defense:
LB Von Miller, torn ACL Out for the season
DT Kevin Vickerson, hip Out for the season
FS Rahim Moore, leg circulation Possible return in playoffs
DE Derek Wolfe, seizure symptoms Possible return in playoffs
Not his best year Broncos LB Von Miller had a tumultuous 2013 season before it abruptly ended Sunday with a knee injury:
Eye on... The Raiders
Denver at Oakland, 2:25 p.m. Sunday, KCNC-4
For the record: Oakland is 4-11.
Streaking: The Raiders have lost five straight, including their past two games to AFC West rivals Kansas City (56-31) and San Diego (26-13).
Who's hot: Defensive tackle Pat Sims, who had 15 tackles, two quarterback hits (including one sack) and two tackles for a loss against the Chargers in Week 16.
Who's not: Rookie quarterback Matt McGloin, who's being replaced by Terrelle Pryor for the season finale against Denver so the Raiders can get another opportunity to evaluate Pryor.
Key stat: Chargers QB Philip Rivers threw for only 201 yards against the Raiders in Week 16. Rivers is averaging 283 yards passing per game this season.
FYI: Pryor hasn't attempted more than five passes in a game since Nov. 10, when he was 11-of-26 in a 24-20 loss to the Giants at the Meadowlands. The former Ohio State star passed for only 122 yards and threw an interception in that game. Coachspeak: "We want to be able to evaluate Terrelle, so here's an opportunity to go in and do that," Raiders coach Dennis Allen said of the team's shake-up at quarterback. "Listen, when Terrelle's played, he's gone in and done a good job. So we anticipate he'll go in and play well."
John Niesen, The Denver Post