THE DENVER BRONCOS began the season without strongside linebacker Von Miller, and they'll end it without him, too.
Miller is done for the year after tests yesterday revealed a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, which he injured in the first quarter of Denver's 37-13 win at Houston on Sunday.
"It's definitely going to be a blow," executive vice president John Elway said on his weekly podcast on the team's website. "But I think that we've done a good job of handling adversity throughout the year. This is another bump in the road for us."
The Broncos (12-3) can wrap up the AFC's top seed with a win at Oakland (4-11) on Sunday.
Miller's injury ended a rough third season for the Broncos star, which began with a six-game drug suspension and included just five sacks and 33 tackles in 10 games.
With 30 sacks in his first two NFL seasons, Miller won the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2011 and was runner-up for the league's Defensive Player of the Year honor last season. He set a team record in 2012 with 18 1/2 sacks to go with 28 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles.
In the offseason, Elway called Miller the best football player on the planet. But Miller ran afoul of the NFL's drug program, was suspended for the first month and a half of the season and never really returned to form in 2013.
Miller worked out at the team's Dove Valley complex during his banishment, and he bulked up to 270 pounds - 24 pounds more than when he was selected second overall in the 2011 draft out of Texas A&M.
Miller was rusty upon his return. Although his bulkier body enhanced his bull rush, it seemed to sap some of his athleticism that made him such a special pass rusher. He had moments where he'd flash his old form, and last week he spoke about peaking for the playoffs.
Although the Broncos went 6-0 during his suspension, that was before they also lost safety Rahim Moore (leg) and linemen Kevin Vickerson (hip) and Derek Wolfe (illness).
The Broncos will look to replace Miller on the roster with another pass rusher.
Miller was rushing Matt Schaub when he was blocked cleanly by tight end Ryan Griffin. His right knee buckled and he crumpled to the ground. Miller walked off the field and into the locker room with a team doctor and trainer.
The best case is that he's back for training camp after surgery sometime next month. ACL recoveries generally take 6 to 9 months.
The Broncos will once again rely on Nate Irving at strongside linebacker in the base defense and on Shaun Phillips, Robert Ayers and newcomer Jeremy Mincey on passing downs.
Denver's injury-riddled defense is a major concern for a team that is averaging 38.1 points and needs just 18 against Oakland on Sunday to supplant the 2007 Patriots' NFL record of 589 points in a season.
The Broncos have surrendered 385 points, or 25.6 a game. No team has ever won a Super Bowl giving up that many.
* Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith is "highly doubtful" for Sunday's game against Atlanta with a left knee sprain, coach Ron Rivera said. However, Rivera said he's optimistic Smith will be ready for the playoffs. The Panthers (11-4) wrapped up a playoff spot Sunday with a 17-13 win over New Orleans. They can clinch the NFC South title and a first-round bye by beating the Falcons.
Smith, 34, had an MRI yesterday that revealed a sprained posterior cruciate ligament. He has 64 receptions for 745 yards and four touchdowns this season.
* St. Louis left tackle Jake Long sustained a torn ACL and MCL in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay. He was injured backpedaling pass protection. Coach Jeff Fisher said surgery will likely be delayed 4-6 weeks to allow the MCL to heal first.
* Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy isn't sure if quarterback Aaron Rodgers will start the team's winner-take-all NFC North matchup with Chicago on Sunday at Soldier Field. McCarthy did say that the team wants to make a decision on Rodgers' availability "sooner than later." Rodgers has not played since fracturing his left collarbone Nov. 4.
Four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who missed four games earlier this season after breaking his right thumb Oct. 6, broke the thumb again Sunday and may be lost for the season.
And running back Eddie Lacy, who has been hobbled by a sprained right ankle since suffering the initial injury Dec. 8, hurt the ankle again Sunday and could be out, too.
* Andy Reid's Kansas City Chiefs are facing a regular-season finale against San Diego that is virtually meaningless to them, as they are assured of the No. 5 seed in the AFC playoffs. Reid wouldn't say if he will rest his starters, but the media presented evidence that in four such instances with the Eagles, he did.
"I appreciate you doing your homework. I do," Reid said, smiling. "The one thing I did then and I'll do now is take the time I have to evaluate it, and make sure I do what I think is right."
* Buffalo defensive tackle Alan Branch signed a 3-year contract extension.
* Terrelle Pryor will start at quarterback for Oakland against Denver in place of Matt McGloin.
* New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccaro has a broken left ankle and is scheduled for surgery today.
* Hall of Famers Albert Lewis and Art Still are among nine former Kansas City Chiefs players who have joined a lawsuit that contends the team hid the risks of permanent brain injuries from repeated concussions. The concussions happened between late 1987 and early 1993.
Five former players filed the initial suit against the Chiefs this month, saying the team ignored decades of scientific research indicating repeated head trauma causes permanent brain damage. In the amended suit filed Saturday in Jackson County Circuit Court, the plaintiffs said Arrowhead Stadium's artificial surface contributed to the head injuries.