Oakland Raiders defensive end Khalil Mack (52) sacks Denver Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler (17) during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)
Joe Mahoney
December 14, 2015

Khalil Mack had five of them. Dee Ford, Mo Wilkerson and Aaron Donald each had three.

The sacks brigades were out this week to the tune of a season-high 85 with one game remaining Monday night. Quarterback knockdowns played a huge role in the outcomes of their games. That could become a trend in the NFL's stretch run.

Sacks are like slam dunks, worth only one tackle, but with a carry-over effect that can change the course of any match. That was certainly true in the cases of Oakland's Mack and Kansas City's Ford, who were virtually unblockable in the second half of their team's victories Sunday.

In a pass-happy league, the only weapon more valuable than a quarterback who can tear apart defenses is a pass rusher who can rip up the QB's protection. Eleven players had multiple sacks this week, according to STATS.

Their skills aren't merely reflected by the stats. For Mack's five sacks, giving him a league-best 14 for the season, there were maybe another half-dozen on which he was oh so close.

''What you see statistically, it doesn't really determine whether you think is better or not, but at the same time, I'm going to keep working to get better,'' Mack said.

The Broncos and the rest of the NFL can only shudder to think about that prospect for a linebacker many are comparing to Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas.

''The way he can get around the corner and bend and get low to the ground,'' says Raiders safety Charles Woodson, now in his 18th pro season, ''it kind of reminds you of Derrick Thomas. I remember playing Derrick Thomas my first game in the NFL against the Chiefs and he had six sacks against us. Today, Khalil kind of reminded me of that.''

Just think how that feels from the quarterback's perspective.

''I felt the pressure, I knew it was coming,'' Broncos quarterback Brock Osweiler says of Mack, a second-year pro. ''Obviously, I knew that he would be coming quick. ... He got there faster than I could get the football out.

''Mack is still as good as anybody in this league after this game. He played a tremendous football game. Sometimes it's hard to do, but sometimes you have to give credit to the opposing team when credit is due. Mack played a phenomenal football game.''

That Mack was so dominant against an inexperienced QB played into his success. Same thing for Wilkerson against Marcus Mariota and the Browns with their nine knockdowns of Blaine Gabbert.

Indeed, opponents can put together a blueprint for how to deal with younger passers from studying the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your perspective) of those games.

''The hunger has been building in us,'' says Desmond Bryant, who had 1 1-2 of the Browns' nine sacks. ''Every time we've gone out and not gotten the result that we wanted, the hunger has grown more and more, and we finally got the job done.''

Unquestionably, the sacks total was bolstered by so many teams being banged-up on the offensive line. Generally, only seven O-linemen dress for games, and if one or two go down, there's often a huge drop-off to the backups.

Considering that so many teams already are without key blockers through injuries, the continuity up front is diminished. It gets worse when the replacements also go down.

Another factor playing into the upswing in sacks - four of the top six weeks for total sacks have occurred in the past month - is specialization.

While offensive linemen rarely leave the field and are not particularly interchangeable, the rotations on defense, especially in the trenches, are continuous. That means fresher bodies posing threats to tiring ones.

Maybe even unfamiliar pass rushers grab the limelight. Ford stepped into the role of injured star linebacker Justin Houston for the Chiefs and got his first three sacks of the season.

''That's lovely,'' teammate Marcus Peters says. ''That shows the depth we have. He had some huge shoes to fill with Justin out, but he came in and made some key plays for us and he ended the game the right way.''

Ratcheting up the pass rush will be critical to success in the final three weeks of the season. In fact, in the highly competitive if mediocre AFC South and NFC East, the team that pressures opposing QBs the most consistently will have a huge edge.

That could mean the Texans with J.J. Watt, broken hand and all, have an edge on the Colts. And the Redskins, who have yielded only 23, might be able to keep their quarterback upright with more regularity than the rest of their division.

Of course, the more disruptive the pass rush, the more dangerous a team will be in the chase for the playoffs.

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