ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Amid the stack of questions the Denver Broncos will have to answer in the coming weeks, somewhere down list past the future at quarterback and the coaching staff, is this: How big of a role does the current defense plays in what's to come?
The Broncos will close out an exceedingly unfulfilling season Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), and while change is expected, how much change remains to be seen.
General manager George Paton, who invested big in players to put in this defense, both in the draft and free agency, has to decide how much of the defensive scheme, how much of the defensive brain trust, including coach Vic Fangio, is a part of the Broncos' future.
Asked in recent days if he worries about his future, Fangio said: "I don't, and I know you think that's a standard answer, but for a lot of reasons I do not worry about it. Those reasons are personal for me, but do I acknowledge that it's certainly out there and could happen -- absolutely. Do I worry about it? I absolutely do not worry about it for many, many reasons."
The Broncos, despite the trade of linebacker Von Miller and a list of injuries that include linebacker Bradley Chubb missing eight games, are ninth in the league in total defense, third in the league in scoring defense, seventh in pass defense and 14th in run defense.
There will be several teams in the playoff field, with more Pro Bowl selections, who don't have that defensive résumé. Paton faces a decision: Replace Fangio and the entire coaching staff and risk taking a step back on defense, or demand Fangio replace some staff members and present a plan to fix the team's offense and special teams.
Tennis icon Billie Jean King has long said "pressure is a privilege." Well, consider the privilege of facing the Chiefs, who are playing for the AFC's top playoff seed and the first-week bye that comes with it, on the final weekend of a season that has not been what so many of the Broncos players and coaches had said, and hoped, it would be.
How much would a distracted, disinterested performance Saturday factor into any, or all, of Paton's decisions? Few, if any, even in the Broncos' complex know the answer to that at the moment.
"I love that perspective of pressure is privilege," said Broncos safety Justin Simmons. "In this profession to have pressure is to have positive and negative expectations, and what that pressure brings out, you either rise to the occasion or you don't ... it's you do or you don't. We know our situation ... but for this team I think we need to finish it out, you can't say how much respect and whatever you have for this game if you don't finish it out."
With safety Kareem Jackson out and cornerback Pat Surtain II (calf) a significant question mark -- Fangio said Wednesday Surtain's availability for Saturday was "highly questionable” -- the Chiefs with quarterback Patrick Mahomes could be a tall order.
"[In the secondary] we do have [Kyle] Fuller available, [Michael] Ojemudia available, [Bryce] Callahan available, [Nate] Hairston available, we have our safeties," Fangio said. "We'll have enough to go out there and compete and play against these guys."
Paton has been clear about not being afraid of significant change from the moment he traded Miller for two draft picks just after Halloween. At that time the Broncos were 4-4. For a team with far bigger short- and long-term concerns on offense and special teams, where Paton fits the defense, including players he added specifically for it, in the changes to come will soon become clear as well.
Wednesday, when Fangio was asked to outline some of the reasons why he should be on the sideline for a fourth season with the Broncos, he simply said: "I'm not one to campaign publicly. ... I'd really rather have those discussions with George and [team CEO] Joe [Ellis]."