Broncos defense has found a groove

DENVER -- The chip was there for all to see, the Denver Broncos simply picked it up and it put it on their defense's shoulders.

The one about being the weak link. The one at the root of the few losses the Broncos have had, the one about having to hold up against the New England Patriots' run game and quarterback Tom Brady.

"We expect Peyton [Manning] to play well all the time because he's one of the best players to ever play the game," Broncos defensive end Shaun Phillips said. "But we have to do what we do on our side of the ball to make sure we keep the ball in his hands and give him a chance to win. … We did that [Sunday], just like we wanted to do, just like we had to do."

When all was said and done in the Broncos' 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game the Broncos held New England to 64 yards on 16 carries. This was a week after the Patriots had skewered the Indianapolis Colts defense for 234 yards rushing,

LeGarrette Blount, who had trampled the Colts for 166 yards, finished with 6 yards on five carries. Blount's longest rush was 3 yards. And asked what the difference was in a tale of two weeks for New England, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said:

"Well, they didn't play the Broncos last week. They are a good running team, but we've got some guys up front that don't like that they're going to do whatever it takes to stop that run and that's really what it's all about, the guys up front."

"It wasn't a shock," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said.

The key, the Broncos -- almost to a player -- said was defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. When the Broncos went looking for bulk to add to the middle of their defensive line during the offseason, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio certainly agreed with acquiring Knighton.

Knighton played for Del Rio for three seasons in Jacksonville and was just the kind of space-eater Del Rio wanted in the defensive front. He finished with four tackles, including two tackles for loss and a sack.

"New England came back on us, San Diego beating us, injuries, that's what molded us into the team we are now," Knighton said. "No one had gotten this far without adversity, we just wanted to respond to it, and like I said, I'm just excited."

In year when the Broncos were forced to play mix-and-match on defense at times -- starting with Von Miller's suspension to open the season -- Denver tweaked some things down the stretch that have them dialed in at the moment. They put veteran linebacker Paris Lenon into the base defense to add a little more pop, they got Bailey back in the lineup, and rookie Sylvester Williams has raised his game since defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson went on injured reserve with a hip injury in late November.

The Patriots had just 16 yards rushing at halftime, 39 yards rushing after three quarters. New England couldn't keep drives alive and Brady could not use play-action in the passing game. New England had three three-and-outs in their five possessions in the first half. The Broncos led 13-3 at halftime and added another touchdown after three quarters.

"I think when you play good teams, the margin of error is pretty slim all day," Brady said. "We dug ourselves a pretty big hole there. … We just couldn't do enough."

The Broncos have had five games this season when they have surrendered 17 or fewer points and four have come over their past four games, including Sunday's win to go with the divisional round victory over the San Diego Chargers.

And while the Broncos defense had lapses -- such as the 160-yard, two-touchdown fourth quarter the Patriots put up Sunday -- Denver defenders believe they held up their end of the bargain to help put the team in the Super Bowl.

"We have one game left," Knighton said. "That's our goal. This wasn't our goal to make it there, our goal was to win it so we still have some business to handle."