John Lynch wanted more noise, and after the Denver Broncos' Pro Bowl safety burst into the New England Patriots' backfield following a false-start penalty early in last Saturday's AFC divisional playoff, 76,238 mile-high fans eagerly responded. Thrusting his right fist to the sky and exhorting the crowd in the north end zone to pump up the volume, Lynch suddenly heard a screech that blew him away: "That's right, John, you get 'em fired up!" It was Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and he was screaming at Lynch while brashly mimicking the Bronco's every move. ¬∂ "You know I will!" Lynch shot back, without missing a beat. As the rivals played out their impromptu version of Dancing with the Stars, and Invesco Field at Mile High rocked as never before, the message was clear: For the Broncos to hand Brady the first playoff defeat of his magnificent career, they would have to invade the pocket with all of their collective might.
In the end New England, winner of the past two Super Bowls and three of the last four, stunningly buckled under the pressure, turning the ball over five times in a 27-13 defeat. While Denver's triumph was a salve for coach Mike Shanahan, who hadn't won a playoff game since John Elway's retirement in 1999, and affirmation of quarterback Jake Plummer's improvement under Shanahan (15 for 26 passing, 197 yards, one touchdown), it was the Broncos' rebuilt defense that most roused the crowd and had the five-year-old stadium shaking.
Thanks to its harassing pass rush and knack for parlaying an opponent's mistake into a game-turning play, Denver rolls into the AFC Championship Game against the physical Pittsburgh Steelers at Invesco with a swagger it lacked in the previous two years, each of which concluded with a lopsided playoff defeat at Indianapolis.
"We're a much different team," says All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey, whose 100-yard interception return to the New England one-yard line late in the third quarter was the Broncos' most important play of the post-Elway era. "I don't think anybody can just run all over us anymore, and even though we may not get a lot of sacks, we force quarterbacks to make some bad throws. I don't care how good a quarterback you are--you'd better not make a mistake, because we'll make you pay."
The defense's extreme makeover into a swift, swarming unit is finally paying off for Shanahan, whose recent personnel decisions--including the trade of star halfback Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for Bailey in 2004 and the acquisition of four defensive linemen from the Cleveland Browns this season--provided fodder for a growing legion of critics. It turns out Shanahan took his cue from the Patriots. Last July, when the Broncos gathered for their first meeting of training camp, Shanahan noted that Denver had been ranked among the top five in the league in fewest yards allowed in each of the previous two seasons, only to get blown out in the playoffs; the Patriots, by contrast, had given up more yards than Denver over that span but had been superior in scoring defense and turnover ratio. "That's how you win championships," Shanahan told his players. "To beat the best you have to be the best."
In winning an NFL-record 10 straight playoff games over the past five seasons, New England had turned the ball over a total of only six times. But when Brady threw his second interception of the game, a deep pass cradled by Lynch with 2:56 left, he and the Patriots were finally silenced.
Though the Broncos didn't sack Brady, they harried him with an array of blitzes on roughly one third of the snaps. Front-seven players such as All-Pro middle linebacker Al Wilson (11 tackles, two passes defensed) and former Cleveland defensive end Courtney Brown (one forced fumble) kept the heat on. "If you give Tom Brady time, he'll kill you," Shanahan said in his office 90 minutes after the game, "so we put a lot more pressure on him than usual. The pass rush is the key to everything. Without it, I don't care how good your defensive backs are, they're not going to make a lot of plays." If that rush continues to be effective, Lynch, Bailey and their teammates will be generating a lot more noise.