You’d think at this point of the season, with 17 games on film, there’s not much the Broncos could throw at the Patriots that would be new.
But you’d be dead wrong.
How about stacking the box early against Tom Brady like he’s Christian Ponder, daring him to throw against a Cover 1 shell at midfield? Yeah, that’s pretty original.
“Sometimes you have to be crazy,” Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan said, “switch it up, make them think they’re going to get one thing and give them another.”
With outside linebacker Von Miller out for the season and top cornerback Chris Harris down, too, many expected the Broncos to back off, to minimize the Brady effect by supporting backup corner Tony Carter while daring running back LeGarrette Blount to beat them. Instead, they went after Blount and Brady with a cast of little-known rushers and won the AFC title, 26-16.
A defense without its top two players didn’t just beat an offense led by one of the best quarterbacks of his generation; it dominated. New England’s first three drives ended with punts, and its first six drives spanning three quarters netted 155 yards. Granted, Brady could have made it close if two of his errant deep balls hadn’t missed their targets, but there was something special about the Broncos defense—something unexpected even by those in the home locker room at Mile High.
“If at the beginning of the season you had said we’d have our best defensive game of the season without Chris Harris and Von Miller, I would’ve slapped you,” Broncos safety Duke Ihenacho said. “But we’ve got depth on this team, [backups] who would start in other places.”
Perhaps no player better illustrates that depth than Trevathan, and none embodies the element of surprise better than defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. They made two of the most important plays of the season during a pivotal defensive stretch.
With just under three minutes left in the third quarter and Denver up, 20-3, Brady dropped back on 3rd-and-2 and located running back Shane Vereen tip-toeing across the middle. The throw was perfect, and the catch and first down seemed complete until Trevathan came crashing down from his weakside linebacker spot to separate Vereen from the ball. It was a moment of triumph for the undersized 23-year-old linebacker who started the season as backup and took offense to the popular media opinion that the Patriots would make the AFC Championship Game a shootout (the Vegas over/under: 57.5).
“I usually don’t even watch that media stuff, but this time I took heed to it,” said Trevathan, whose team-high eight tackles were key in holding New England to 64 rushing yards. “I took it as a personal challenge. I showed the D-line and the linebackers in the locker room on Wednesday on my phone. I said we needed to step up.”
For all his Internet savvy, Trevathan was unaware until after the game that he and Tom Brady were the only former sixth-rounders on the field at the start of the game, though he did recognize the significance.
“We were both out there trying to do our thing,” Trevathan said. “He didn’t get drafted high for whatever reason, and I worked out poorly because I hurt my groin. We both came into this league with a chip. I have the mentality that every team that passed on me is going to pay for it.”
A play after Trevathan’s pass breakup, on 4th-and-2, big-bodied nosetackle Terrance Knighton came up with the most shocking play of the day. Lined up on Pro Bowler Logan Mankins, he recognized the formation and the situation and surmised that the Patriots would pass instead of hand off to Shane Vereen in the backfield. The 27-year-old, who is listed at 335 pounds, opted out of his traditional gap-occupying technique and swim-moved past Mankins, catching Brady off-guard for a drive-ending sack.
“I watch a lot of film, probably more than most of the guys besides [defensive end] Shaun Phillips,” Knighton said. “I saw the formation they were in, which I’ve seen all week. I put myself in that position all week, thinking about how I was going to beat Mankins.”
Knighton, who lost 25 pounds in three weeks after showing up to training camp overweight—he says he shed the weight by “eating more greens”—is as loquacious as any player in Denver’s locker room. He spent 20 minutes chatting with reporters before retreating to the showers and emerging with a too-small towel covering just a fraction of his torso. He was happy to explain how he bested New England’s top lineman by reputation.
“Just knowing he’s aggressive and wants to get his hands on you,” Knighton said. “It’s just one of those moments you prepare for all week.”
It’s a moment the Patriots couldn’t have prepared for, which in the age of Belichick in Brady, is really saying something.