During the week before the AFC title game, it seemed like the media couldn’t stop talking about Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Denver didn’t really have a good run defense, went the chorus, and Blount had run for 166 yards in the Patriots’ 43-22 victory over the Colts.
That, we were constantly told, would be a big key to the championship game.
All week long, I kept seeing pieces about the Pats and Blount: San Diego had run effectively on Denver during the regular season, what Denver could (or couldn’t) do, and how much they were vulnerable. I got tired of turning things off and generally just ignored it, but the repetitive talk about how the Broncos couldn’t stop the run was like having a small bird endlessly pecking the top of my head.
Hadn’t anyone looked at Denver’s recent work against it? Ryan Mathews had gotten the only 100+ yard game on them, it was true, picking up 127 yards on 29 carries in Week 15. The Broncos had held their last three opponents under 90 yards rushing, though, including the divisional win over San Diego.
After Denver had gone 14-3 (15-3 now) over the year, hadn’t anyone noticed that Terrance Knighton had become a fixture in other teams’ backfields? Using Paris Lenon to spell Wesley Woodyard at middle linebacker has permitted WW to roll to the Will on obvious run downs. While Lenon’s pass defense is spotty, he’s a better tackler on runs up the pipe than Woody.
That also lets Danny Trevathan rest a little more, since the ‘nickel’ is now the base defense. If anyone’s been looking, Nate Irving has been providing some pretty nice Sam LB work this year, too. Denver played some very good running teams this season and beat them handily. Sylvester Williams has developed greatly as well. Malik Jackson? Equally effective, inside and out.
The media forays into regurgitated pablum also fixated on how many times in the past Peyton Manning had played Tom Brady, obsessing over games played when Manning was with another team and Brady had a different cast. The same had happened with San Diego, but the reality is that Denver is currently 4-1 against San Diego since Peyton's arrived in town. No Manning-versus-whoever’s past stats mattered that day, but surprisingly few analysts seemed to catch onto that fact last week.
The same pattern emerged before the Chargers matchup - Denver’s ever-willing defense, their multifaceted offense, and Matt Prater’s leg strength were among the strengths that would be on display, but you might not have known it by the coverage.
On the first series of the game, NE was looking at a 2nd-and-5. Blount was handed the ball and tried for right tackle, but he barely got back to the line of scrimmage before being snowed under by Lenon, with Shaun Phillips and Duke Ihenacho ready to back Paris up. Blount got up looking a bit stunned, but that treatment was going to be the norm for him all day.
By the end of the contest, Shane Vereen had earned 34 yards on four carries, Stevan Ridley had managed 17 yards on five attempts, and even Tom Brady himself had given them seven yards and a TD on his two rushes. Blount? He ended the day with five carries, six yards, and no receptions; a mere 160 yards short of his production in the divisional game.
By morning, Papa Johns Elway and Fox had sent out a few gross of pizzas specially topped with crow. Peyton Manning went all southern for the occasion and added humble pie to the orders at no cost.
Danny Trevathan covered the reality of this very well:
People want to speak bad about our defense: '(New England is) going to run the ball, they're going to have their way. It's going to be a high-scoring game.' We just said, 'You keep talking, we'll keep playing.'
Playing wins over talking every time. Denver simply outplayed the Patriots for the AFC Championship, even if Bill Belichick embarrassingly believes that it was all due to a nefarious plot by Wes Welker. Blount’s attack was blunted, the Patriots were traumatized, Denver is rocking and rolling now, and Champ Bailey finally gets his shot at a Super Bowl ring.
Somehow, that last fact has trumped everything else. Champ will finally be playing in a Super Bowl - and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.
One more game to go.