It was Tom Brady's last chance to work his magic.
Down 20-3 with 2:30 left in the third quarter, Brady and the Patriots were facing a 4th-and-2 conversion attempt that would either keep their Super Bowl hopes alive or effectively force them to pack their bags for the long flight home.
The Patriots spread the field—and the Denver Broncos defense—from sideline to sideline. Brady dropped back and looked to his first read. Suddenly, his view of the sun was blotted out by a 6'3", 335-pound man called "Pot Roast." Brady barely had time to turn away before he was thrown to the ground:
That's how the Broncos' X-factor, Terrance Knighton, introduced himself to much of the football-watching world.
How did this 27-year-old veteran in his fifth season become such a dangerous playmaker? And why haven't most folks heard of him until now?
Fast Start, Fading Finish
Knighton was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round of the 2009 draft. Hailing from Connecticut and going to school at Philadelphia's Temple University, Knighton told Mike Kern of Philly.com that he "grew up a Patriots fan."
Before he could knock his former favorite team out of the playoffs, though, he had to come into his own as a player. According to Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union, Knighton exceeded all expectations, earning a starting role as a rookie.
Knighton flashed plenty of power and athleticism as a run-stopper, and he added a small handful of sacks in three of his four seasons in Jacksonville.
However, he repeatedly struggled with conditioning issues, as discussed in 2011 by Pro Football Talk's Gregg Rosenthal. Knighton also faded badly in the 2011 stretch run, notching just three tackles and five assists in the last five games combined, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Between the addition of 2010 No. 10 overall pick Tyson Alualu and the strong play of veteran C.J. Mosley, Knighton became a rotational player for one of the worst teams in football in 2012. With his contract expiring, it seemed inevitable the Jaguars would let him become someone else's problem.
New Scenery, Same Problems
Knighton joined 2013 first-round pick Sylvester Williams in a concerted effort by Denver's front office to beef up the Broncos' defensive presence at the line of scrimmage.
At the beginning of the season, Knighton rotated with veterans Kevin Vickerson and Malik Jackson; Williams got some snaps in, too.
Knighton looked unsettled early on. He was overwhelmed by double-teams and stronger guards in the run game and was caught over-pursuing and "leaving home" while rushing the passer.
In Week 2, the New York Giants seemed to target Knighton, running at him repeatedly in the first half. Knighton is No. 94, lined up on Giants center David Baas' weak-side shoulder:
After the snap, the Giants offensive line flows to the strong side (the left of the screen). Knighton begins to flow with them, but Baas fires off and gets his hands on Knighton's chest, driving him up and back:
With left guard Kevin Boothe pulling behind him, Baas disengages from Knighton and hits linebacker Nate Irving. Boothe gets a good pop on an off-balance Knighton, too, leaving him flailing:
At the same moment, tailback David Wilson cuts back, revealing the play to be a counter right through the space Knighton just vacated. Wilson has a monster hole to run through and bolts for a five-yard gain:
The Comfort Zone
Gradually, Knighton became more comfortable with what Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio was asking him to do.
His get-offs—tentative at the start of the season—became explosive. Rather than reacting to the offense and flailing with his arms, he began firing and driving with his legs, converting his speed to power at the point of attack.
Just look how his production changed over the course of the season. Instead of wearing down over the course of the year, he's ramped way, way up:
This chart shows Knighton's production in the 15 regular-season games he started, clustered in groups of three (and the two playoff games).
For much of the year, he was a "pile jumper," racking up assists by helping clean up after someone else made the initial hit.
Over the course of the season, though, his sacks and solo tackles steadily climbed; in the two playoff games, he had more sacks and solo tackles combined (seven) than in any of the three-game clusters to date.
New Confidence, New Approach, New Performance
Here's a Week 14 play that shows the difference in his game. Though the Chargers didn't run the exact same play as the Giants above, this is still a play that is run directly at him where the center is responsible for taking him out of the play:
Just as before with the Giants, Chargers center Nick Hardwick reaches out to hand punch Knighton at the snap, and...
Nope! Knighton brushes Hardwick's hands off him while he bursts through the gap. All but untouched, he buries tailback Ryan Mathews for a two-yard loss:
A New Challenge
The Broncos' 22nd-ranked scoring defense, though, isn't on the same planet as the 49ers' third-ranked unit. Per Pro-Football-Reference.com, the Broncos allowed an average of 7.9 more points per game than the 49ers.
Is the Broncos offense so much better than the 49ers offense that they can spot the Seahawks an extra touchdown and still win? I don't think so.
On a defense missing all-world edge-rusher Von Miller and top cover corner Chris Harris, a defensive tackle who can quickly penetrate the line and disrupt run and pass plays alike is worth his considerable weight in gold.
That's actually literal: According to GoldPrice.org, the value of gold at the time of this writing is $1,243.27 per troy ounce. With 14.584 troy ounces in a pound, the 335-pound Knighton's worth in gold is $6,073,980. Per Marc Sessler of NFL Media, the 2013 franchise-tag value for a defensive tackle was $8.45 million.
Whether Knighton plays like the rotational journeyman space eater who was allowed to leave Jacksonville or like the young Warren Sapp he's resembled at the end of the season, it could mean the difference between the Broncos leaving Super Bowl XLVIII empty-handed or bringing home the pot roast.