ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) - The Denver Broncos will have to make a deep run in the playoffs to get Willis McGahee any more carries this season.
The Broncos put their 31-year-old running back on recallable injured reserve Wednesday, meaning he can return to practice after missing the final six regular-season games and play in a game after Jan. 18.
That would bring Denver up to the AFC title game.
McGahee tore the medical collateral ligament in his right knee Sunday when he was tackled low by San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer. Coach John Fox said McGahee won't need surgery, but he decided to put him on IR to give the Broncos some roster flexibility.
McGahee will be replaced by rookie Ronnie Hillman, Lance Ball and former first-round pick Knowshon Moreno, who have combined for 297 yards and two TDs on 82 carries so far, when the AFC West-leading Broncos (7-3) visit the Kansas City Chiefs (1-9) on Sunday.
``We're certainly going to miss Willis,'' quarterback Peyton Manning said. ``To say we're not going to miss Willis would be not telling the truth because he's that good of a player. ... So, Knowshon and Ronnie and Lance have to step up. Everybody else has to step their game up, too, when you're missing one of your top players.''
McGahee ranks fifth among AFC rushers with 731 yards and a 4.4-yard average. He also had 26 catches for 221 yards - just 10 yards shy of his career high set in 2007 in Baltimore - and his 33 career 100-yard games are more than any other active running back.
Denver's offense is built around Manning's pinpoint passing, but McGahee's success despite a career-high five fumbles provided the Broncos with a toughness between the tackles and kept opponents from teeing off on Manning and his receivers.
``The good thing is all three guys have played plenty early in the year. So, they're all familiar with the system and they've all got to pick up their game,'' offensive coordinator Mike McCoy said. ``Every back, every player, has a different style. So, they'll do their thing. We have all the confidence in the world those guys can do that.''
Of the three, Hillman has had the most work - 49 carries for 188 yards - but he's a smaller, shiftier tailback in the mold of Darren Sproles and the Broncos will watch his workload closely.
``Willis has had the most game repetitions, but Lance and Knowshon are veteran players and Ronnie's probably had as much experience as any rookie running back right now,'' Manning said. ``Those guys will step up and do a good job.''
Ball and Moreno have more experience in pass protection, and that's priority No. 1 for any running back in Denver, as evidenced by Ball's beautiful blitz pickup last week when he slid from the left side to the right, sparing Manning a vicious hit and allowing him to throw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker.
``That was a huge block,'' said Manning, who expects those kinds of plays from whoever's in the backfield with him.
Hillman said the prospect of carrying a larger load now means ``you've got to protect Peyton a lot longer. I've been in there a lot, but if I do get an extended role, then it's a little more pressure, being able to do everything right every play that I'm there.''
The Broncos are keeping their options open as far as filling McGahee's spot on the roster. They could promote running back Jeremiah Johnson from their practice squad or sign a free agent. On Tuesday, they worked out former Houston running back Steve Slaton, who rushed for 1,282 yards and caught 50 passes as a rookie in 2008 before injuries and inconsistency took hold.
Fox, however, indicated he wasn't planning on adding another running back before Sunday's game.
``For this week, I think we feel very comfortable with who we have,'' Fox said. ``And that can change based on anything we might do, but I think it's fair to say and pretty obvious that we'll pull from the guys we have that know our system.''
Hillman was listed as a full participant at practice with a hamstring injury, but he told The Associated Press it wasn't an issue and that he hadn't aggravated the hamstring pull that set him back during training camp.
Notes: CB Omar Bolden (concussion) didn't participate in practice. DL Derek Wolfe (thigh), TE Virgil Green (hamstring) and WR Demaryius Thomas (right knee) were limited. RG Chris Kuper (left ankle) and CB Tracy Porter (illness) and DE Robert Ayers (groin) were full participants. ... Chiefs QB Brady Quinn is the first of Denver's trio of 2011 QBs to get a start for his new team. ... Perennial Pro Bowl CB Champ Bailey said flags for helmet-to-helmet hits like the one that cost Ravens S Ed Reed $50,000 should be immediately reviewable on replay like fumbles or TDs. He said it's impossible for a fast-closing defender to avoid hits like this one when the ball-handler ducks a split-second before impact like Pittsburgh WR Emmanuel Sanders did. The league originally suspended Reed for a game, which Bailey suggested was orchestrated: ``Lift the suspension and make it a fine. It kind of lightens the load of a $50,000 fine, right?'' Bailey said. ``It's still excessive. I know Ed personally and he's not a dirty player.'' ... LB Von Miller won his second career Defensive Player of the Week award for his three-sack, two-forced fumble performance against the Chargers.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL
Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton