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Monday Observations: Broncos' title hopes hinge on 'Pot Roast' Knighton

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This is the Super Bowl of Terrance Knighton.

Pot Roast takes New York. Get ready for it.

What's that you say? Peyton Manning is playing in the big game? He's about to cement his legacy and all? Sure, yeah, I heard that. And, like the rest of the country, I watched his brilliance on Sunday as the Broncos thoroughly outperformed the Patriots and eased, for the most part, to the AFC crown. Manning will be crowned and championed and there will be no shortage of column inches and Internet bandwidth or whatever else devoted to chronicling his remarkable career over the next two weeks.

In his own way, Knighton is a similar sort of lynchpin on the defensive side. And let's face it, that's where the deficiencies are for the Denver Broncos. They are beyond loaded and historically excellent on offense. Their proficiency was clearly on display in the AFC Championship Game, with the Patriots unable to slow them down or force a few punts or get a stop on third-and-long. Manning was at his very best.

That Manning would have a big day, however, came as no surprise. That Knighton was able to anchor a beaten and battered defensive front, eliminate the diverse and powerful Patriots running game and generate sufficient interior pressure to derail Tom Brady and lead to him sailing balls and being inaccurate all day, well, I'm not sure we all could have counted on that. Let's face it, this Broncos defense looked plenty vulnerable almost all season, and the job it did on New England cannot be overshadowed by the continued offensive majesty. Make no mistake, if the Broncos are going to continue their winning ways, Knighton will have to once again be among the best on the field in the Super Bowl, and his presence will be even more imperative against Seattle in two weeks.

I wrote last week that if Denver won, Knighton would have to be one of the absolute standout players, a true game-changer. And he was. A guy the lowly Jaguars pretty much gave up on -- one that oozed potential plenty but whose weight and dedication left some back in Jacksonville wondering -- had the game of his life in the biggest game of his life, doing so for defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, his former head coach with the Jags. He had to. It was as simple as that.

Denver's best defensive linemen -- Derek Wolfe and Kevin Vickerson -- have long been out of the picture due to injuries. With Von Miller joining them, the outside pass rush was called into question as well. Could the Broncos withstand the physical approach New England would bring with the run, coming off their dismantling of the Colts on the ground a week ago? And could they collapse the pocket enough to make Brady suffer? In the end, they did all of the above, thanks in large part to Knighton.

The bye week clearly seemed to benefit the big man. He was stellar against the Chargers in the divisional round, refreshed after the week off. This was a Denver team, if you recall, that got gouged pretty good on the ground by the Chiefs, Titans and Chargers late in the season, and one that was not loaded with confidence heading into the postseason. The thought was that if the Broncos did fulfill their expectations and win a Lombardi Trophy, it would take them winning shootouts to do so. That hasn't been the case.

Knighton made some of the biggest plays in Denver's win Sunday, again. His sack of Brady on fourth down more or less ended the game. He got the better of the Pats' premier offensive lineman, Logan Mankins (himself a brawler of the highest order) repeatedly and he was the key to the Broncos stopping New England behind the line of scrimmage in the run game as well. Drive after drive, big No. 94 just kept flashing all over the place. Rather than try to test his endurance and run right at him and try to grind him down through the course of the game, the Pats had to reverse course and try to run away from the space eater if at all possible.

New England had just 64 yards rushing on just 16 carries. That was not the game plan. They did not have a single run over 11 yards. LeGarrette Blount was a total nonfactor, with just five carries for 6 yards. Part of this was the fact the Broncos were able to mount an early lead, protect the football and force the Patriots to chase the game in the second half, but a bigger part of it was the fact that the run game was just going nowhere, thanks in large part to Knighton.

And with the Patriots without many of their standout defenders in the run game -- nose tackle Vince Wilfork and linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes in particular -- the Broncos won this game in the trenches, with Knighton leading the charge. Now, he has two weeks to prepare for what will be, by far, the greatest challenge he and his defensive line will face. They haven't seen anything quite like this before.

The Seahawks have the most punishing running back in the NFL in Marshawn Lynch, and he will not fear the interior of this Denver defensive line. Far from it. Coach Pete Carroll will not abandon his direct approach to the run game, going heavy with power, and even if it isn't there early, his will to run will not relent. Carroll knows that one back-breaking run could come at any point -- we all saw Lynch get off on the dominant 49ers defense in the second half Sunday -- and Knighton will have to deal with one of the premier centers in the league as well.

Oh, and there are more designed runs ahead for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, for sure, and when things break down he can pick up huge chunks of yards with seeming ease. Even more will be asked of Knighton. Should he deliver, then it stands to reason that Manning will get more praise and glory than ever before, and his position atop the all-time quarterbacking Mount Rushmore will be complete.

Manning, as we know, would be seeking out a postgame Bud Light. I'm guessing the man they call "Pot Roast" might be plenty content to celebrate with a GD snack. If the Broncos are holding that trophy, then undoubtedly Knighton will have earned it.

While Pete Carroll and the Seahawks celebrate, one vital assistant is a hot candidate. (USATSI)
While Pete Carroll and the Seahawks celebrate, one vital assistant is a hot candidate. (USATSI)

Browns zeroing in on Quinn?

I expect the Browns to put the full-court press on Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn this week. They have no reason not to.

Quinn leads the league's best defense and is headed to the Super Bowl -- with his unit the primary reason why. Seattle's previous defensive coordinator, Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, finished 4-4 in the second half of the season and beat the Browns, who finished 0-7 before firing rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski. You can sell Quinn as an upgrade and the reality is, he was the first person the Browns interviewed after firing their coach.

And as much as people want to rip the Browns -- and I get all of that -- the reality is nothing has changed about this job since Quinn interviewed for it. It may be a "bad job" and the decision to fire Chudzinski after one season opens up the front office for ample criticism, but from the time they interviewed him originally until now, nothing has really changed. I mean, Pats offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels pulled out of contention after he was not assured the job would be his after his interview, but what does that really matter to Quinn?

Quinn had a strong interview with the Browns and was informed the process could take several weeks. The team very well might want to talk to him again during the bye week before the Super Bowl. And that's what is expected to come down. There isn't anything else the Browns could have done with Quinn between that first interview and now, and the fact is they are the only job open right now. They don't have to worry about some other team sneaking in and grabbing their guy. There is no detriment to being patient (especially when the fallback plans are much less attractive).

Quinn remains interested in the job, sources said, and there is no shortage of talent on defense for the Browns to appeal to him. If they can draft a quarterback and a running back, who knows? The bottom line is Quinn was intrigued as soon as the regular season ended and I don't see why he would be any less intrigued now.

Waiting for Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase to -- perhaps -- interview with them sometime after the Super Bowl doesn't make much sense. That's a little too patient from the Cleveland standpoint, and Gase could easily still leave them at the altar even if he does decide to interview. Making the best bid for Quinn and trying to get a handshake deal in place is the way I would go. We'll see what the Browns come up with.

Extra Points

The Patriots' draft preference has been to trade back as often as possible and accumulate assets. But seeing how devoid they are of an outside receiving presence, I wonder if they package a few things and try to move up to land a difference maker at that position this spring? Free agency doesn't make as much sense (Eric Decker? Anquan Boldin?) and they are simply nowhere near the level of talent in the passing game as many of the teams they compete against in the AFC.

If anything, the loss to me just cements what a tremendous coaching job Bill Belichick did this season to even reach an eighth championship game. I'm not sure anyone else did as much with as little, though San Diego's Mike McCoy springs to mind.

The Seahawks will be a different offense in the Super Bowl with Percy Harvin back from a concussion. They just will. The offense will open up against the Broncos and I expect Russell Wilson to throw for over 30 touchdown passes next season. If Harvin can stay remotely healthy -- and I realize with him that's always a big if -- this is a different team on offense. Harvin hasn't even entered his prime, is barely in his mid-20s, and the lack of physical abuse he took this season, barely seeing the field, should help him long-term, I figure.

The 49ers lost All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman to what looked like a gruesome knee injury. (USATSI)
The 49ers lost All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman to what looked like a gruesome knee injury. (USATSI)

Prayers go out to NaVorro Bowman, who might be the best linebacker in the world. Hope he is back on the field as early as possible in 2014.

I suspect the 49ers' negotiations with quarterback Colin Kaepernick will be tricky. In the end there might be nothing more than a bump for 2014 ahead for him (he is set to make $1 million in 2014). Sunday's loss probably negates the need to take him to that $18 million-a-year stratosphere that another Super Bowl appearance would have mandated right away ... but anything less than the kind of money guys like Jay Cutler and Joe Flacco are making would probably prompt the QB to bet on himself and play out his rookie contract.

 
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