ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Last week, Chris Harris marveled at how much Denver’s injury-riddled defense had changed and how not a single player who started against Baltimore in last year’s playoffs would start at the same position against San Diego on the anniversary of that crushing loss.
“We’ve lost so many guys,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve gotten good at keeping that next-man-up mentality.”
On Monday, it was his turn to get the bad news: He’ll miss the rest of the Broncos’ playoff run after an MRI showed he had a torn ACL in his left knee that will require surgery and at least six months of rehab.
“There’s no doubt he’s one of our better performers on defense throughout this season, but … we’ve lost some pretty good performers throughout the season and this team’s been resilient,” coach John Fox said.
Harris was injured in the third quarter of Denver’s 24-17 win over San Diego on Sunday.
Fox wouldn’t say if Quentin Jammer will start in the AFC title game when the Broncos (14-3) host the Patriots (13-4) this weekend.
“It’s a long list, a long cast,” Fox said. “If I knew right now, I wouldn’t say anyways.”
Fox’s options include moving Champ Bailey, a 12-time Pro Bowler who’s been relegated to slot duty after returning from a nagging foot injury last month, back outside or inserting rookie Kayvon Webster into the starting lineup opposite Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Webster is playing with a cast on his right thumb, which he broke in two places a month ago.
Another option is dusting off Tony Carter, who was one of the goats in Denver’s 34-31 overtime loss at New England on Nov. 24 when a punt hit his leg, the Patriots recovered and Stephen Gostkowski kicked the game-winning 31-yard field goal.
After Harris got hurt, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers staged a comeback from a 17-point deficit largely by targeting Harris’ rusty replacement, Jammer. It fell short, however, when Peyton Manning was able to keep Rivers on the sideline over the final 3 minutes, 51 seconds by converting a trio of third downs.
Jammer surrendered a 49-yard completion to Keenan Allen on fourth-and-5 from the Chargers’ 25 with seven minutes left that helped turn a comfortable cruise into a nail-biter.
“When Chris went down, things started to unravel a little bit on the back end,” safety Mike Adams said. “Jam, I’m not worried about him. He gave up a big play, but he could bounce back. He’s been in the league a long time. We’ve all had bad games before.”
Adams said the Broncos wouldn’t have to adjust their defense to provide help to whomever replaces Harris, either, insisting: “I’m confident if Tony Carter goes out there, if Kayvon Webster goes out there, if Jam goes out there.”
Harris had played more snaps than anybody on defense and had 65 tackles, three interceptions and 15 pass breakups, all career highs.
“It’s another disappointment for us,” linebacker Paris Lenon said. “Somebody else that we’ve been battling with that has been a huge part of this team and this defense that is down. It’s an opportunity for somebody else to step up and play big.”
The Broncos have withstood an injury epidemic to reach their first conference championship in eight seasons, but Harris’ injury could prove the hardest to overcome.
Harris is the fifth defensive starter the Broncos have lost since November, joining Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Rahim Moore and Derek Wolfe.
“It’s terrible news,” Terrance Knighton said. “You hate to see a guy having a great year, going into a contract year (get hurt). I wish him the best. I wish him a speedy recovery, but we just have to focus on the task at hand right now and that’s New England. Whoever will fill his shoes, whoever we put in there, has to step up.”
Harris was hurt on the opposite side of the field when Rivers completed a 19-yard pass to Allen along the San Diego sideline with 8:17 remaining in the third quarter. Allen would catch two TD passes after that and it took Manning’s superb 4-minute drill to staunch Rivers’ rally.
“Philip got hot there in the second half. I did not want to give him the ball back there at the end,” Manning said.