DENVER – You can’t help but notice Peyton Manning and his trio of receivers every Sunday. We know Knowshon Moreno is the comeback kid. We’ve heard about John Fox, John Elway and all the folks who have assembled and coached this huge collection of Denver Broncos talent.
But Sunday’s 26-16 win over the New England Patriots was about the unsung heroes.
Perhaps as much as anyone, it was the Broncos who started the season on no one’s radar, the guys who flew under it for much of the year and put the decisive punch in the Broncos’ Super Bowl ticket on Sunday.
First, there was Tony Carter. Last week against the San Diego Chargers, the Broncos had given up zero points through two and a half quarters. After cornerback Chris Harris Jr. went down with a torn ACL, the Broncos gave up 17 points over a quarter and a half and barely held on to win 24-17.
With Harris done for the year, who would replace him? It turned out that guy was Carter, who was re-thrust into the spotlight after having ridden the pine for the vast majority of 2013.
All the fourth-year Bronco did with his opportunity was bat down an early pass, preventing the Patriots from getting on the board first, and play through the pain of a shoulder injury all the way to the final gun.
Then there was the man they call Pot Roast. Deemed expendable by the worst team in the NFL a season ago, Terrance Knighton found a place in Denver this season.
He also found himself bringing all 335 pounds of his beefy frame down on Tom Brady twice Sunday, corralling the New England quarterback in two crucial situations.
Earlier in the year, Montee Ball might have fumbled if he took any shots like the ones Knighton delivered Brady. But four months after his fumbling problems began, those issues were an afterthought on Sunday.
Maybe he wasn’t the All-Pro the Broncos thought he might be in his rookie year, but Ball continued his tough running Sunday, splitting the load with Moreno almost 50-50, and closing out the game when Moreno went down with a chest injury in the fourth quarter.
Speaking of injuries, it took one to Julius Thomas for Jacob Tamme to get a shot at tight end against in Denver. A forgotten man in Indianapolis and then again in Denver when Thomas stole his job, Tamme was never forgotten by Peyton Manning.
Even with a healthy Thomas, it was Tamme who got the Broncos going on Sunday, catching the first of Manning’s two touchdown passes on the day. As if that weren’t enough, Tamme also reeled in Manning’s last completion of the game. It gave the Broncos a first down just before the two-minute warning, and allowed them to milk the clock down to 0:00.
And last but not least, there was the wily old vet.
Champ Bailey has been waiting 15 years for a shot at a Super Bowl. And after spending 11 games sidelined with a foot injury this season, the aging, banged-up 35-year-old proved he can still buck up against the young bucks on Sunday.
Bailey spent most of the day locked up with the Patriots top wide receiver, Julian Edelman. Sure, Edelman wasn’t exactly silent. He led the Patriots with 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown. But when the Patriots really needed him, Edelman was nowhere to be found. And Bailey was right where he needed to be.
Now Bailey is right where he belongs: getting his first shot at the NFL’s ultimate honor.
We know all of Broncos Nation will be cheering him on. And considering the resilience shown by Bailey and these four unsung Bronco heroes this Sunday and all season long, the rest of the nation might have a hard time not joining in.