DENVER — We watched the upcoming Super Bowl champion on this gorgeous Colorado Sunday afternoon.
This is my conviction, but don't just listen to me. Rod Smith is convinced, too.
A few minutes after the Broncos trashed the New England Patriots, 26-16, Smith stood in a peaceful corner of a joyous, chaotic locker room. He had once stood in this room as a Broncos receiver. On Sunday afternoon, he walked into the locker room as a friend of the team.
Smith knows the ingredients of a Super Bowl champion. He started for two champs and caught an 80-yard touchdown from John Elway in the Broncos' last journey to the ultimate game in 1999.
He's convinced he sees another title team.
"The Broncos are going to win," Smith said. "Don't matter who they play. The Broncos are going to win. These guys just believe."
I realize it might seem a trifle early to crown the Broncos, but a moment from the third quarter convinced me this team has the right stuff to rule the NFL.
Quarterback Tom Brady led a Patriots march to the Broncos' 29-yard-line and along the way he silenced the rowdy crowd at Mile High. The fans were wise enough to realize the Broncos still had to vanquish one of the top-five quarterbacks in football history along with the brilliant, diabolical mind of coach Bill Belichick.
Facing a fourth and 3, Belichick made the courageous choice. He gambled, tossing in all his chips by going for the first down. Brady retreated into the pocket, where he searched for receivers.
He failed to see the terrifying figure rampaging toward him. This seems strange. The figure sprinting toward him was Terrance Knighton, who is listed at 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds. A newborn would weigh a negative 15 pounds if placed on Knighton's faulty scale.
Knighton was enraged, with good reason. He was fueled by doubting voices who had announced the Broncos' defense was soft and weak and vulnerable. He listened, his fury building, to those who insisted Brady would rip this flimsy defense to shreds.
"We can't do this, we can't do that, you know," Knighton said. "We listen to everything and we just use it to warm the fire."
Knighton, a man in flames, engulfed Brady in his arms and dropped him to the turf.
When Brady retreated into the pocket, the Patriots retained a chance. As Brady reclined on the field, he knew what everybody should have known:
The Patriots were finished.
"That was huge," Smith said, his voice rising with each word. "It was huge."
A few seconds after the season-altering sack, Smith was shouting in Knighton's ear.
"Dude, it's not going to resonate with you how important it is that you did what you just did," Smith said. "But you just made a sack against one of the best to ever play the game."
When the third quarter ended, the Broncos had 20 points, double the number of New England's nine first downs. Brady and the Patriots had crawled to 160 total yards. Peyton Manning was magnificent, passing with a level of precision rarely seen in football history.
But Manning's magnificence was no surprise.
What converted me from Broncos skeptic to Broncos believer is the marauding performance of the defense. Knighton had been infuriated by all those who doubted him and his defensive comrades. On Sunday afternoon, he was serene. He knew he had silenced all critics.
The silencing will continue Feb. 2 in New Jersey.
The Broncos will win the Super Bowl. Smith believes. And so do I.