Back when he was head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jack Del Rio (along with then-rookie GM Gene Smith) used a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft on one Terrance Knighton. Four years later, when Knighton hit free agency, he opted to follow Del Rio -- now the Broncos' defensive coordinator -- out to Denver.
"He knows what type of player I am," said Knighton of Del Rio, after signing a two-year, $5 million deal with the Broncos, "what type of system and what type of style I'll excel in."
Never have those words proved more prophetic than in Denver's two playoff wins. Knighton was an absolute force in the divisional round, as he helped slow a San Diego run game that had abused the Broncos just a few weeks earlier. Then, in Sunday's 26-16 AFC title win over the Patriots, Knighton again played a starring role, with four tackles and a crucial fourth-down sack of Tom Brady.
The MMQB's Greg Bedard wrote in October about a key moment in Knighton's Denver development: after the team's second preseason game, when a member of the organization told the defensive lineman to get in shape. Over the next three weeks or so, the man affectionately called "Pot Roast" dropped 25 pounds and cemented himself in the Broncos' rotation.
His presence in the middle has been even more invaluable because of Von Miller's extended absences -- first on a multi-week suspension to open the year, now with a season-ending injury.
"I'm sure their game plan is to take me out of the game," Knighton told USA Today this week ahead of his team's showdown with the Super Bowl on the line.
That may have been New England's goal. Chalk it up as a failure, though, because Knighton turned in another stellar performance, and the Patriots offense never kicked into gear as a result.
• First Down: The Broncos' passing attack.
Denver's first drive Sunday looked promising, only to stall after a second-down run play from inside New England territory fell apart. With Peyton Manning and a record-setting passing offense in tow, the Broncos did not make the same mistake twice.
New England found itself unable to generate pressure on Manning for most of the game -- Chandler Jones' fly-by disruption of a third-down throw by Manning in the red zone was about it for the pass rush -- and the Broncos' weapons overwhelmed the Patriots' secondary, particularly after Wes Welker knocked Aqib Talib from the game.
Manning finished 32-of-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns. Even more impressive was how he spread the football around, with eight Broncos making catches. Demaryius Thomas (seven catches for 134 yards and a TD), Eric Decker, Welker and Julius Thomas all had key moments, while little-used TE Jacob Tamme hauled in a touchdown early and picked up a critical first-down pass late.
The Broncos rolled to the AFC West crown and the No. 1 seed on the strength of Manning's arm. Why stop now?
• Fourth Down: Tom Brady.
The Patriots' quarterback deserves all the credit in the world for getting his team this far in spite of a roster thin on game-changing talent. Aside from a too-little, too-late charge in the fourth quarter, however, Brady was off his game Sunday.
The issues were most noticeable when Brady looked for the deep ball, as he did several times without any success. His most glaring mistake came in the first quarter, off a pretty play-action fake, when Brady simply overthrew an open Julian Edelman in Denver territory. New England trailed 3-0 at the time and would have at least been in field-goal range with a completion there. Instead, after a punt, the Patriots watched Denver score to take a 10-0 lead.
Brady's touchdown pass to Edelman in the fourth quarter was his first and only TD toss in the playoffs. New England did not need him much last week to get by Indianapolis, but Brady had to be at his best to take down the Broncos. He wasn't even close.
• First Down: Matt Prater.
Prater is as strong an ace in the hole as any special-teams unit has in the NFL right now. He bombed a record 64-yard field goal in December and Sunday nailed all four of his field-goal attempts. For as many yards as the Broncos piled up, and for as much as it felt like they were dominating, they had several drives stall out. Prater picked up the slack, with FG makes from 19, 27, 35 and 54.
That 54-yarder gave the Broncos a 26-10 lead, thereby forcing the Patriots to try (and fail on) a two-point conversion after a later touchdown.
• Fourth Down: 4th-and-2.
One of the greatest chapters in the Brady-Manning rivalry came in 2009, with Manning in Indianapolis. Holding a six-point lead in the fourth quarter and facing 4th-and-2 from his own 28, Bill Belichick elected to go for it rather than punt the ball away to Manning. The Patriots failed to pick up the conversion, and the Colts scored a touchdown to win the game.
Sunday's 4th-and-2 failure by the Patriots did not change the game's outcome quite like that one, but it loomed large nonetheless. Trailing the Broncos 20-3, the Patriots tested the waters on 4th-and-2 rather than try a 47-yard field goal to pull within two touchdowns. That's the play on which Knighton blew through for a sack of Brady. Had they taken the three points there, they would have been within one possession following Brady's fourth-quarter rushing touchdown.
It's hard to really question the call given the circumstances -- Denver's offense was clicking and New England believed it needed touchdowns. But the result obviously leaves Belichick open to criticism.
• First Down: Julian Edelman.
Consider this more of a season achievement award than a nod to what happened Sunday. That said, Edelman caught 10 balls on 15 targets in his team's loss, despite drawing a matchup with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (and the most attention of any Patriots receiver, by far).
Edelman averaged fewer than nine yards per catch, down from the 10.1 mark he posted during the regular season. He would have had a stronger finish in that category had Brady not missed him on that deep crossing route in the first quarter -- Edelman would have had at least 30 yards there.
All season, New England showed off the "Next Man Up" approach on offense, with Aaron Hernandez in jail, Rob Gronkowski in and out of the lineup and its rookie receivers developing slowly. Edelman was the rock. He caught 105 balls during the regular season and 16 more in the playoffs. Plus, he never shied away from his other duties, as evidenced by a huge block he laid on Rodgers-Cromartie early.
• Fourth Down: LeGarrette Blount.
New England had been shuffling its running backs all season, so in a way, seeing Blount slide out of the plans Sunday -- particularly against a Denver defense that appeared more susceptible to the pass (and Shane Vereen) than the run -- was not a stunner. And yet, with Blount coming off a monster Week 17 and a four-TD showing last weekend, it seemed safe to count on Blount to play a larger role than he did.