Englewood (AP) — Brian Dawkins' biggest contribution Sunday in the AFC wild card playoffs will be with his talking and not his tackling.
Hampered by a neck injury, the Denver Broncos' emotional leader hasn't practiced in weeks and was ruled out Friday for the first-round game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, Dawkins will be heard, even if it's screaming from the sideline instead of barking out the calls.
His voice has already energized the Broncos (8-8) after Dawkins delivered a rare speech following a 7-3 loss to Kansas City last week. He emphatically urged his teammates to forget about backing into the AFC West crown and fervently focus on the Steelers (12-4).
"He'll be effective, one way or another," Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey said. "He's the leader of this team."
Pittsburgh is without one of its top safeties as well. Ryan Clark is sitting out as a precaution because of a blood disorder that's exacerbated by altitude.
That's just as big of a loss. After all, the steady play of Clark frees up Troy Polamalu to freelance and fly around the field.
"Ryan does such an awesome job of complementing Troy," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "People don't realize that. Troy makes a lot of plays and gets a lot of notoriety for it and publicity, but really I think Ryan is kind of the backbone for it. People don't know, but Troy ad-libs a lot. Troy just sees stuff and that's what makes him so good.
"We'll have to see how Troy does without Ryan back there as kind of his safety blanket."
Dawkins' loss is a blow to a team that lacks much playoff experience.
Rookie Quinton Carter will play free safety while third-year player David Bruton once again fills in for Dawkins, provided, of course, he's healthy. Bruton is listed as questionable with an aching Achilles that's bothered him for weeks.
Sure, those two younger safeties are far more spry than the 38-year-old Dawkins, but they don't have anywhere near his level of recognition, something Roethlisberger will try to exploit.
"I don't know if anybody fills the void of (Dawkins') leadership and his ability to get us excited about playing," Denver defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "Brian's been an outstanding player for a long time. Any time you lose that type of player, it hurts."
Dawkins has been sorely missed ever since he pinched a nerve in his neck in the Broncos' last win, against Chicago on Dec. 11. He's been sidelined for all but one quarter of the past three games, all losses.
"He's a guy that comes down and stops the run and always seems to make the play," Roethlisberger said. "When you turn on the film, 20 is always in there."
Just like old times.
"Is he the same player he once was? Probably not," said former Broncos safety John Lynch, who's now a television analyst.
"But he's still really good if you put him in the right situation and I feel Dennis Allen has done a great job in doing that all year. Come playoff time, certain principles come back and I always believed the safety position is huge.
"You can do so much at that position, and that's a tough loss — and really on a team that doesn't have a whole lot of playoff experience. Dawk brings that. I think it's tough."
Dawkins sauntered around the field Friday wearing a cap instead of a helmet and carrying on conversations as his teammates prepared. He looked more like a coach.
That's because, well, he is like one.
Only, he doesn't put in as many hours.
"He hasn't been up there at 11 or 12 at night when we've been up there," Allen said, laughing.
The words and wisdom of Dawkins carry a lot of weight. Teammates are constantly leaning on Dawkins for advice, even during games.
"Every single play, good or bad, he has a comment for it and how we can improve," Carter said. "You can't beat that. He just settles us down."
The Broncos know they have to reverse their recent trend if they're going to have a shot Sunday. Tim Tebow has turned the ball over seven times during their three-game skid and Denver's defense hasn't produced a single takeaway in that span.
Backup Brady Quinn has been staying late after practice this week, working on timing routes with receiver Eric Decker. Quinn asserts he's just trying to stay sharp, and not because coaches have informed him that he may be called on should Tebow's struggles continue.
"No. Just trying to stay ready and get guys extra catches," said Quinn, who hasn't thrown a single pass in a regular season game during his two years in Denver. "Obviously, the wide receivers are trying to be ready, as well."
Quinn said he's "as ready as you can be" if called upon. "Obviously, the backup doesn't get many reps, if any. So, you'll just try to go out there and do the best you can."
Coach John Fox has demurred when asked about the possibility of benching Tebow.
"I don't want to speculate on those things," Fox said. "Like every game, we expect our starters to play well, and if for some reason an injury occurs or something happens, then it's the next man up. That won't change any more this week than it has all season."
Notes: The forecast for Sunday is calling for snow. "One thing I've learned about my short time with Colorado weather: Denver, in particular, is predictably unpredictable," Fox said. ... FB Spencer Larsen (knee) is listed as doubtful for Sunday and receiver/returner Eddie Royal (toe) is probable.
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