The Denver Broncos do not possess a very potent offense but it does have a unique quality to it that makes it difficult to prepare for. Perhaps no Patriots defender was more aware of this than Rob Ninkovich.
In the first meeting last month, Ninkovich was shell-shocked right from the start. As one of the team's edge defenders he was asked to hold up his end while reading the many zone read and option looks Tim Tebow and the Broncos present. The results were ugly.
Denver rushed for 167 yards in the first quarter alone and by the start of the second the Broncos held a 16-7 lead. Ninkovich was guilty of misreads, missed tackles and was generally knocked out of position often. He and the team eventually rebounded and came away with a 41-23 victory but Ninkovich was not happy with his play.
That was not the case in Saturday's rematch. Ninkovich was the clear leader of a rejuvenated front that harassed Tebow in the backfield virtually every time the quarterback opted to keep the football. He properly read the option and generated heavy heat on the rare pass plays Denver attempted.
His biggest play came early when he halted a promising Denver drive on its opening possession with a huge strip sack that helped preserve the Patriots early 7-0 lead.
"Rob's been a very consistent player for us all year. He did a great job tonight. I know he was a little bit disappointed in the way he played in the last Denver game and he's very determined," Bill Belichick said after the game.
"He had a great week of practice, great week of preparation and he had a real good night tonight along with a lot of other guys out there. It just comes down to team defense and being able to do our job in the running game, inside with the quarterback on the pitch, those kinds of things, play action passes – they threw a lot of those, the balls down the field."
Ninkovich clearly figured out the error of his ways from the first meeting and dominated Denver throughout the second time around. He finished with five tackles, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. His play diagnosing the Broncos options may have been even more impressive, and by corralling Tebow he took away Denver's biggest offensive threat.
"Playing against a guy like Tim Tebow, you've got to give him a ton of credit. You've got to prepare for him all week, for a guy that can run an option, get out of the pocket and do things on the run. So [we were] very stressed all week on keeping him contained, keeping the run contained, not letting the ball outside," Ninkovich said.
"It's difficult because when you're out there playing and you want to go one way because you see him, but you know that he's got the ability to get outside and really hurt your team. So you've just got to be disciplined in your responsibilities in the defense. Just playing good team defense all together and great communication, it starts with that."
So while it's easy to watch the greatness of Tom Brady and his six touchdown passes, often overlooked are the key contributions from guys like Ninkovich. On Saturday night, he was the best player on defense.