DENVER — Von Miller sack-stripping the quarterback with the game on the line, doing a little celebration dance after his teammate scores the game-sealing touchdown moments later.
Seven months after his sack-strip of Cam Newton led the Broncos to the Super Bowl title, Miller did it again Sunday, punching the ball from Andrew Luck’s grasp in the closing minutes and sealing Denver’s 34-20 win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Just like last year.
Only, this isn’t a deja vu defense to Denver cornerback Chris Harris Jr.
“At this point last year, we don’t think we’re this solid like we were today,” Harris said following Denver’s latest badgering of an elite QB. “We didn’t shut down Andrew Luck at this time last year. Now, we’re ahead of the game.”
The Broncos sent Luck to the hospital last year with a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscle but still left the Lucas Oil Stadium 27-24 losers on that November night.
While Luck’s season was over, the Broncos went on to win Super Bowl 50 thanks to a defense that was so dominant it drew comparisons to Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain units of the 1970s, the ’85 Bears and the turn-of-the-century Ravens.
That’s why Harris didn’t understand all the predictions of doom and gloom when the Broncos lost Peyton Manning to retirement and Brock Osweiler to free agency along with defensive starters Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan.
They still had Miller & Co., didn’t they?
Jackson cashed in with the Jaguars but the Broncos weren’t about to pay top dollar to a player who was, at best, their sixth-best defensive player, and Trevathan wasn’t even on the field but about one-third of the snaps.
So, the Broncos (2-0) gladly played the Rodney Dangerfield card all offseason: Nobody was giving them the respect they felt they had earned by mauling Newton and the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in the Super Bowl.
That’s fine, they would just duplicate last year’s pre-eminence. They put away their diamond-encrusted rings and pledged to go out this season and be even nastier and carry new QB Trevor Siemian if they had to.
They delivered by hitting Newton 17 times in their win over Carolina in the NFL opener.
Even with Luck avoiding the kinds of big hits he absorbed last time these teams met, the Colts QB still was hit 19 times Sunday.
That included five sacks, three from Miller.
“He’s like a shark when there’s blood in the water,” defensive end Derek Wolfe said. “He just gets going faster and faster.”
With the Broncos clinging to a six-point lead with 1:51 left, Miller said one thought went through his mind:
“It’s time to close.”
And he did it, sweeping past left tackle Joe Reitz and punching the ball out of Luck’s hands . Fellow linebacker Shane Ray scooped it up and raced 15 yards for the touchdown.
“It was Von Miller being Von Miller,” lamented Colts coach Chuck Pagano. “We did a great job on him at some points in the game. But he’s a great, great player and he made a great, great play.”
Like Luck, Miller signed a big contract in the offseason and when training camp began, GM John Elway admonished him to treat the regular season like he had the playoffs, when he tormented Ben Roethlisberger, Tom Brady and Newton in delivering the franchise its first championship since Elway was in the huddle.
Miller has delivered so far with four sacks.
Cornerback Aqib Talib also had a 46-yard pick-6 early in the fourth quarter, meaning Ray’s first career TD marked the 10th time in franchise history the Broncos scored twice on defense.
Talib stepped in front of wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to snag Luck’s pass, which he returned through traffic down Denver’s jubilant sideline. His ninth career pick-6 was his fifth for Denver, a franchise record.
“The good thing about Aqib is if he ever gets his hands on the ball, he’s not only a DB, he’s a returner,” coach Gary Kubiak said.
“I practice it,” Talib said. “When I get an interception in practice, I go score on it. Practice makes perfect.”
Plus, he used to play receiver, Demaryius Thomas noted, “so it’s nothing new.”
After D’Qwell Jackson stuffed C.J. Anderson on third-and-1 from the Colts 17 and Brandon McManus’s 35-yard field goal made it 26-20 with 1:51 left, the Broncos knew Luck would want to go to the air with no timeouts left.
Safety T.J. Ward said Kubiak’s decision to kick the field goal didn’t show a lack of faith in the offense but “just shows his confidence in us.”
His dazzling defense.
The one that keeps getting dismissed. And disrespected.
For anyone still “sleeping on this defense,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said, “I’m pretty sure we woke them up today.”
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton