AFC West: 2014 Championship Game NWE-DEN

Broncos defense has found a groove

January, 19, 2014
Jan 19
11:45
PM ET

DENVER -- The chip was there for all to see, the Denver Broncos simply picked it up and it put it on their defense's shoulders.

The one about being the weak link. The one at the root of the few losses the Broncos have had, the one about having to hold up against the New England Patriots' run game and quarterback Tom Brady.

"We expect Peyton [Manning] to play well all the time because he's one of the best players to ever play the game," Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "But we have to do what we do on our side of the ball to make sure we keep the ball in his hands and give him a chance to win. … We did that [Sunday], just like we wanted to do, just like we had to do."

When all was said and done in the Broncos' 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game the Broncos held New England to 64 yards on 16 carries. This was a week after the Patriots had skewered the Indianapolis Colts defense for 234 yards rushing,

LeGarrette Blount, who had trampled the Colts for 166 yards, finished with 6 yards on five carries. Blount's longest rush was 3 yards. And asked what the difference was in a tale of two weeks for New England, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said:

"Well, they didn't play the Broncos last week. They are a good running team, but we've got some guys up front that don't like that they're going to do whatever it takes to stop that run and that's really what it's all about, the guys up front."

"It wasn't a shock," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said.

The key, the Broncos -- almost to a player -- said was defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. When the Broncos went looking for bulk to add to the middle of their defensive line during the offseason, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio certainly agreed with acquiring Knighton.

Knighton played for Del Rio for three seasons in Jacksonville and was just the kind of space-eater Del Rio wanted in the defensive front. He finished with four tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack.

"New England came back on us, San Diego beating us, injuries, that's what molded us into the team we are now," Knighton said. "No one had gotten this far without adversity, we just wanted to respond to it, and like I said, I'm just excited."

In year when the Broncos were forced to play mix-and-match on defense at times -- starting with Von Miller's suspension to open the season -- Denver tweaked some things down the stretch that have them dialed in at the moment. They put veteran linebacker Paris Lenon into the base defense to add a little more pop, they got Bailey back in the lineup, and rookie Sylvester Williams has raised his game since defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went on injured reserve with a hip injury in late November.

The Patriots had just 16 yards rushing at halftime, 39 yards rushing after three quarters. New England couldn't keep drives alive and Brady could not use play-action in the passing game. New England had three three-and-outs in their five possessions in the first half. The Broncos led 13-3 at halftime and added another touchdown after three quarters.

"I think when you play good teams, the margin of error is pretty slim all day," Brady said. "We dug ourselves a pretty big hole there. … We just couldn't do enough."

The Broncos have had five games this season when they have surrendered 17 or fewer points and four have come over their past four games, including Sunday's win to go with the divisional round victory over the San Diego Chargers.

And while the Broncos defense had lapses -- such as the 160-yard, two-touchdown fourth quarter the Patriots put up Sunday -- Denver defenders believe they held up their end of the bargain to help put the team in the Super Bowl.

"We have one game left," Knighton said. "That's our goal. This wasn't our goal to make it there, our goal was to win it so we still have some business to handle."

DENVER -- When Hall of Famer John Elway sat across a nicely appointed desk from Peyton Manning, whose gold jacket is a future given, a promise was made.

A promise that went beyond the recruitment of the most decorated free agent to ever hit the open market in the NFL's history, a promise of what could be if both took a leap of football hope and faith.

Elway made a promise to Manning 22 months ago that he would "do everything in my power to make sure [Manning] finishes his career the way I finished mine."

Make no mistake, children across the Front Range leave their footy pajamas behind carrying the knowledge Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Denver Broncos. And in his third season as the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, hired by Pat Bowlen to restore glory and secure trophies, Elway has now seen Manning lead the Broncos into the Super Bowl.

Manning was at his take-that best Sunday as he swatted away the pregame chatter about his record against Bill Belichick, about his oh-so-many on-field battles with Tom Brady, with a performance that was as efficient as it was relentless in a 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game. Manning finished 32-of-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns.

He wasn't sacked, was rarely even disturbed as he went about his work and did not throw an interception. The Broncos and Manning dropped a total of 507 yards worth of misery on Belichick's defensive game plan and flaunted the variety that has vexed defenses all season long.

Five different players caught at least three passes as eight players had receptions overall. Or as Belichick put it, in his own bottom-line way: "They've got a lot of good players."

That they do. And in the end, it was Belichick who provided the nudge that pushed the Broncos to where they were Sunday.

It was Jan. 14, 2012, when Belichick dismantled the Broncos' postseason run powered by Tim Tebow and a read-option offense. In a 45-10 hide-your-eyes Patriots win, Tebow was 9-of-26 for 136 yards and was sacked five times.

It dropped the curtain on what had been a dynamic stretch for the Broncos, who had unveiled the read-option after making Tebow the starter, a run that included an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. And the loss left the Broncos at a crossroads.

Broncos coach John Fox said this past week that "I remember we lost in the playoffs in New England that year, and it was a pretty good indicator of how far we had to get moving."

Then, after Manning was cut loose by the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks later, Elway and the Broncos closed the deal on the surgically repaired quarterback. Manning has gotten better and better since.

He threw a franchise-record 37 touchdowns in 2012, threw a league single-season record 55 touchdowns in 2013.

"There was a lot of uncertainty, whether he was going to play anymore," said Archie Manning, Peyton's father. "That kind of makes it special ... His age, what he went through, playing the quarterback position in this league, we tried to stay positive with him. He handled it so well."

"He's a great man off the field, a great leader and a great person to follow because he does everything right," said Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball.

But simply landing Manning wasn't all Elway did. He hit on some draft picks, players like Ball, Orlando Franklin and tight end Julius Thomas. He got a coach in Fox who assembled a staff with both veteran hands like defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and mark-it-down, up-and-comers like offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Elway also got more from inherited players such as Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno.

He had to deal with last January's crushing playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens; and Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season; Fox's open-heart surgery; a long list of injuries that included Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady, Miller and Chris Harris Jr.; and making the right call on short-term signings like defensive end Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He had to maintain his composure and hold the door against complacency.

"It meant we had to deal with everything we had to deal with, to keep the focus on what needed to be done," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. " ... A lot of people talk about being good, but you have to do the things that need doing to be good. All the time, every day. All you want is a shot at the big game, and we have that. Now you get to work on that one game."

People are always telling Elway, because his quarterback is 37 years old and in his 16th season after four neck surgeries, that the Broncos need to win now. Elway's retort is not a surprise to anyone who knows him, to any of those who were in the huddle with him while the game was on the line.

Elway always says "it's about win [from] now on."

It was all there Sunday, awash in orange, played out with the emotion of a team making its first Super Bowl appearance since Elway was its quarterback. It will be a Super Bowl where the Broncos will be asked questions about whether their high-powered offense can handle a snowy day, can handle a muscle-bound defense from the NFC or if the Broncos' defense can be good enough, for one more game, to get it all done.

And it will be a Super Bowl game where a promise is kept.

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

January, 19, 2014
Jan 19
6:02
PM ET

DENVER -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 26-16 win over the New England Patriots:

What it means: The Broncos earned the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl trip with an efficient, laser-focused effort, particularly from quarterback Peyton Manning, who played virtually mistake-free behind top-tier protection. The Broncos will carry the highest scoring offense in league history into the title game having shown their variety of targets and options in the win over the Patriots.

Stock watch: Certainly tight end Julius Thomas’ presence in the offense helped the Broncos crank things up -- he didn’t play in the Nov. 24 game in Foxborough, Mass., because of a knee injury -- but defensive tackle Terrance Knighton showed himself to be one of the team’s best forays into free agency last March. Knighton was physical, disruptive and a key reason the Broncos stifled the Patriots' run game. Knighton also added a key fourth-down sack late in the third quarter.

Grind it out: The Broncos made an offensive living all season working fast and scoring quickly out of their warp-drive, no-huddle attack. But they have shown the ability to work more methodically in their two postseason games. They had a touchdown drive of 7 minutes, 1 second against the San Diego Chargers last weekend to go with scoring drives of 7:50 and 7:52 Sunday against the Patriots. Those are the three longest scoring drives of the season for the Broncos.

Find an answer: The Broncos made it work against a depleted Patriots receiving corps, but the losses of cornerback Chris Harris Jr. in the playoff win over the Chargers last week and linebacker Von Miller in a Week 16 victory over the Texans -- both to torn ACLs -- will continue to be something the Broncos will have to adjust to in the Super Bowl when an opponent has two weeks to prepare to find the openings. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady consistently went after cornerback Tony Carter in coverage, and the Broncos didn’t consistently create the kind of pressure they hoped to beyond two very well-timed sacks.

What’s next: The Broncos’ defense certainly will have to muscle up against the NFC’s best in the Super Bowl, and the Broncos' offense will have its protection scheme tested. But Manning gets his third Super Bowl trip, and Champ Bailey, after 15 seasons and 12 Pro Bowls, finally gets his first career Super Bowl appearance.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

AFC WEST SCOREBOARD