Englewood (AP) — Dressed in sweats and an orange beanie, Broncos safety Brian Dawkins watched practice from the sideline Thursday, unable to participate for a second day because of a neck injury that has left him questionable for Sunday's pivotal matchup against Kansas City.
Dawkins, who spent the open locker room session getting treatment in the training room, has been sorely missed by the Broncos since pinching a nerve in his neck in the third quarter of the Broncos' 16-13 overtime victory over Chicago three weeks ago.
A 16-year veteran responsible for pre-snap defensive adjustments, Dawkins has been sidelined for all but one quarter in the last two weeks, when the Broncos have given up 40 and 41 points in losses to Buffalo and New England. That's way up from the 17 points on average the Broncos (8-7) allowed during a six-game winning streak that was fueled by Tim Tebow's play at quarterback and Dawkins' defensive leadership.
The run of success thrust the Broncos into contention in the AFC West, but they have to beat the Chiefs (6-9) and former Denver quarterback Kyle Orton to win the division and clinch their first playoff berth since 2005. Denver could lose and still reach the postseason if San Diego wins at Oakland.
Coach John Fox on Thursday described Dawkins' availability as day to day. Either David Bruton, a third-year player who was limited in practice because of a sore Achilles, or rookie Rahim Moore would start in place of Dawkins if he is unable to go. Rookie free safety Quinton Carter, slowed by a hip injury, practiced without restrictions for a second consecutive day.
Orton joined Kansas City last month after losing his starting job to Tebow and being released. He is very familiar with the Broncos' defenders from having practiced against them on a daily basis for two and a half years. The Chiefs also may have a blueprint for Denver's vulnerabilities, with film of New England's Tom Brady and Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick working over the Broncos' patchwork secondary.
"Obviously, the last couple weeks, people have tried to spread us out and get the ball out of their hands quick," Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "We'll see if Kansas City tries to follow suit or if they kind of stick to what they've been doing, which is a little bit more protection oriented."
Dawkins' status also complicates matters.
"We've got some young guys that are having to fill roles and guys that haven't played a lot," Allen said. "They're stepping in trying to fill that role to the best of their ability and we've got to try to help them as much as we can."
The problem, Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said, is that Dawkins' combination of savvy, experience and leadership isn't replaceable.
"We definitely miss him and I'm not going to shy away from saying that," Bailey said of Dawkins. "I know this is a next-man-up business, but you can't replace a guy like that. His intensity and leadership, there's not a guy on the roster that can replace that.
"We just need guys to step up and play well. You're not going to be Brian Dawkins, but you've got to play effective and do your job."
The Broncos' playoff chances may very well depend on that, along with their ability to handle the unlikely reunion with Orton, who began the season as the Broncos' starting quarterback.
"It's funny," Bailey said. "I was just thinking back to when he was here. He was here in November. It's weird, but it's football. That's the way the business is. It gives us an opportunity to go out there and play against a guy we know a little about."
Of course, Orton also knows plenty about the Broncos.
"We've got some things we're going to try to build off of," Bailey said. "He's in a new offense, so we definitely have got to get that down first, make sure we do all the right things, because they have more than just him over there. He knows a lot about us, which could hurt us at some point, but we've got to make sure he doesn't take advantage of us."
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