ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For much of the season, Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has looked at the carnage his group has inflicted on opponents and said "not bad for a guy that was unemployed last year."
The Broncos, who finished No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 1 in sacks during the regular season, certainly left a bruising impression on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady Sunday. They hit Brady on 23 of his dropbacks as the Broncos disrupted the timing of the potent Patriots' offense in Denver's 20-18 victory in the AFC Championship Game.
Broncos coach Gary Kubiak called the team's defensive game plan "special," as the Broncos not only battered Brady, but they held the Patriots to their second-lowest point total of the season -- New England scored 10 points against Miami in the regular-season finale. It was the Patriots' lowest-scoring output in a playoff game since Denver's 26-16 win in the 2013 divisional round.
"The players, I mean you go across the board -- we talk the morning after the game about players of the game and stuff, we couldn't pick a guy," Kubiak said. "We played great defense. We have plenty of (game balls) to go around for them. We played a lot of man coverage. … We made them get rid of the ball, but we held up in our coverage."
"We played over and beyond our standards," said linebacker DeMarcus Ware. "That's how we play every single game. That was the all-around game where we were able to get pressure. … That was, I think, the all-around closing game that's going to carry over and motivate us in the Super Bowl."
Now the Broncos need one more top-shelf, get-it-done game plan for Super Bowl 50.
Because the Broncos, and stop me if you've heard this before, will face a high-scoring team with a quarterback, who's played all season at an MVP level, and whose leading option in the passing game is a tight end. The Carolina Panthers live in the same put-ball-in-the-end-zone-a-lot framework as the Patriots. The Panthers led the league in scoring, while the Patriots were No. 3, but the Panthers go about it in a far different way.
Start with the multi-dimensional Cam Newton with his 45 total touchdowns in the regular season: 35 passing and 10 rushing. The Panthers ran the ball the most in the regular season -- 32.9 attempts per game -- while the Patriots were near the bottom of the league's rushing rankings. The Panthers also tied for the league lead in rushing touchdowns with 19.
The Panthers have manhandled defenses at such a rate that their only loss -- Week 16 to the Atlanta Falcons -- is the only game they were held to fewer than 20 points. They have outscored their two playoff opponents -- the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals -- by a combined 80-39.
Tight end Greg Olsen led the Panthers in receiving in the regular season with 77 catches for 1,104 yards, statistics in line with Rob Gronkowski's 72 catches for 1,176 yards for the Patriots in the regular season. Olsen has led the Panthers in receiving in the postseason as well with 12 catches in the two games combined.
The Broncos, after giving the players two days off, will return to the practice field Thursday as the team sifts through what it will do against Newton and the rest of the Panthers' offense.
Phillips has made it a point to say he has turned these Broncos loose because of the combinations of Pro Bowl players in the pass rush as well as in the secondary. He has players in Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall at inside linebacker, who Phillips said should have made the Pro Bowl. So, while the Broncos dialed back the blitzes against the Patriots, usually getting to Brady with four rushers, they believe they were aggressive overall in their mind-set against New England and will be once again Feb. 7 in Levi's Stadium.
"That's almost the plan every week if you really look at it," said cornerback Aqib Talib. "We're going to do what we do. We're going to go line up, do what we do. We may switch it up here and there a little bit, but for the most part, we're going to get pressure on the quarterback and cover."