DENVER -- The Denver Broncos' defense is in a rut, and what a lovely rut it is.
The Broncos have held their two playoff opponents to identically anemic rushing totals -- 14 yards on 13 carries.
One more effort like that, and the Broncos figure they can start sizing their second straight Super Bowl championship rings.
In an AFC divisional playoff game on Jan. 9, the Broncos shut down Karim Abdul-Jabbar and the Miami running attack, forcing Dan Marino to try to win the game by himself. Marino was not up to the task, and Denver romped 38-3.
In Sunday's AFC championship game, Curtis Martin and his New York Jets teammates were similarly stuffed. Even though Vinny Testaverde threw for 356 yards, he had two passes intercepted and the Broncos won 23-10.
In the last four games, in fact, the Broncos have been superb against the run, yielding a combined 88 yards on 67 carries for a per-carry average of only 1.3 yards.
It is the same sort of late-season surge the defense mounted a year ago. Denver struggled against the run for most of the 1997 regular season and finished a mediocre 16th in the NFL, allowing 112.7 yards per game. They yielded 4.7 yards per carry, the highest ever for a Super Bowl champion, but tightened their run defense in the playoffs.
This year, they improved to No. 3, allowing 80.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry, but have been even better the last month.
"We have veteran leadership," defensive end Neil Smith said Tuesday, "and I think we just know when it's time to turn it on late in the year."
On Jan. 31, the Broncos will try to turn it on again in the Super Bowl against Atlanta's Jamal Anderson, who finished second in the NFL to Denver's Terrell Davis with 1,846 yards rushing.
"In the playoffs, the name of the game is running the football," Broncos defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said. "If you can't run, it makes life harder on the quarterback. The team that can control the football usually wins.
"Curtis Martin is a great cutback runner. He's been the difference in a lot of their ballgames, but our guys were determined he wasn't going to be the difference in this last one.
"We did a great job against the run, but we've got another great runner coming up. We've got work to do."
Smith said the Broncos "knew coming in that Curtis Martin was really making things happen for them. We knew we had to take him away, and that's what we did. We forced them to pass. We forced them into third-and-long."
Linebacker Glenn Cadrez said stopping the run "is something we have a lot of confidence in because it's something we've done all year. The way we've been playing, teams have to throw the ball 50 times and complete about 40 of them, because they're not going to beat us on the ground."
Martin, who has just 101 yards rushing in four career games against Denver, said, "There was a man matched up on me everywhere I went. They pursued the ball really well and they wrapped up. They didn't just hit, they made tackles."
Linebacker Bill Romanowski, who had a game-high 11 tackles against the Jets despite a concussion, said there's a reason for Denver's defensive resurgence.
"Everybody has been very disciplined in what they do," he said. "It's been 11 guys flying to the ball. The discipline and the guys making plays is the reason we've been fortunate enough to stop the run, which sets everything up."
The Broncos say the powerful Anderson, who carried an NFL-record 410 times during the regular season, presents one of their biggest challenges.
"Anderson is a runner who will rip your arms right out of the sockets if you don't wrap him up," defensive tackle Trevor Pryce said. "From what I've seen, you don't arm-tackle that guy. You have to get a lot of people around him and force him to run laterally if you can. It's going to be one of our biggest challenges."
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