During the regular season, the Denver Broncos' run defense was very good, ranking second in the AFC and third in the NFL.
During the postseason, however, it has gone from very good to virtually impenetrable.
"The key to our run success is our attitude -- a frame of mind to say, 'You're not running the ball on us. If you're going to beat us, you're going to beat us in the air,' " Broncos defensive tackle and former Buffalo Bill Mike Lodish said.
The Miami Dolphins and New York Jets received that message loud and clear.
The Dolphins were held to a mere 14 rushing yards in their 38-3 divisional-round loss to the Broncos on Jan. 9. A week later, the Jets were limited to the same embarrassingly low total in losing the AFC Championship Game to Denver, 23-10.
"We have completely dominated the last two games," Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "And to do that in the NFL, it's hard."
On Sunday, the Broncos will try to do it in the Super Bowl -- against none other than the Atlanta Falcons' Jamal Anderson, who only happens to be the No. 2 rusher in the NFL.
No. 1, of course, is Denver's own Terrell Davis.
"There's two or three big problems," Broncos safety Tyrone Braxton said of the 5-foot-11, 234-pound Anderson. "First of all, he's fast, so he can outrun you. Second of all, he's quick, so he can outmaneuver you. And three is power. He can run you over."
"We've never had a chance to really hit Terrell in training camp or in practice," Lodish said. "But we know this guy's the best runner that we're going to see outside of Terrell. That presents a challenge that we haven't seen yet and, frankly, we're ready to accept that challenge."
The numbers certainly seem to suggest as much.
The Broncos finished the season allowing an average of only 80.3 rushing yards per game. But they have been saving their best for the latter part of the year, when the stakes are at their highest.
Since allowing 138 yards on 25 carries in their 20-16 loss to the New York Giants on Dec. 13, the Broncos have been stuffing the run with a vengeance. In the past four games, their opponents have gained only 88 yards on 67 carries, a stunning 1.3-yards-per-attempt average, and two touchdowns.
"We truly believe the great teams keep getting
better," Denver defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said. "They don't settle somewhere during the season and say, 'That's what we are.' You keep working and working and working. I believe our players have done that and its kept building."
Robinson's scheme emphasizes discipline. Each defensive lineman must control a gap and resist the temptation to vacate his area and try to make a play that someone else is supposed to make.
When everyone plays with confidence that the other guy will do his job and can put aside the selfish need to pad statistics, the scheme works to perfection.
"We're playing as a group," Robinson said. "You can feel that these guys are working together, that there's the discipline that you're looking for. To be a great run defense, you've got to be disciplined."
"Guys trust each other, knowing that they can only control their gap because it's a one-gap defense," said defensive end Neil Smith.
The Broncos have also had success employing blitzes that are designed as much to slow the run as put pressure on the quarterback. Against the Jets, Denver frequently had eight men on the line, using safety Steve Atwater in a rover capacity to keep a close eye on running back Curtis Martin, or drop into coverage.
"We may do the same thing," Atwater said. "But we try to mix it up."
Much of what the Broncos' defense does will depend on what they see from the Falcons' offense. Atlanta's running game isn't all that fancy, but Robinson wouldn't be surprised to see some new wrinkles Sunday.
"I suspect they'll try something different," Robinson said. "I suspect that they're going to do some different things and we're going to have to adjust on the run a little bit. But that's football, especially in the playoffs.
"It isn't like the New York Jets, who've got a complicated system of running the ball. This outfit knows how to run the football. They don't have to get real cute. They've got a very talented running back and you've got to deal with that.
"We're going to have quite a challenge on Sunday."
So far in the postseason, the Broncos' run defense has met all of its challenges -- and stuffed them.