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Why Broncos' Chris Harris Is the Hidden MVP of NFL's Conference Championships

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2016

Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) celebrates after intercepting a pass from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady during the first half the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. At left is Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The NFL's conference championship weekend is now in the rear view. The Denver Broncos have been crowned lords of the AFC, while the one-loss Carolina Panthers reign supreme over the NFC. In a couple of weeks, the two will meet for the ultimate prize in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. 

For one of these teams, the path here was a bit of a challenge.

The Panthers walloped the Arizona Cardinals 49-15 on Sunday, and they were clearly the better team by a wide margin. There were valuable players for Carolina, to be sure, but it's difficult to say that any one player deserves the credit for such a display of total team domination. Cam Newton is the Panthers' MVP, but the team might have been able to rest him for three quarters and still win that game. 

The Broncos, however, narrowly escaped with a two-point win over the AFC-rival New England Patriots. If not for one or two individual performances in that contest, Denver could have lost.

On the surface, the choice for the game's MVP is linebacker Von Miller. It was the Broncos defense that won this contest—Denver's offense produced just 244 net yards—and Miller led the charge. He produced five tackles, 2.5 sacks, one pass defended and an interception against the Patriots. Pro Football Focus also credits him with an additional quarterback hit and four hurries. 

However, we're not here to talk about Miller, though he is certainly deserving of praise. 

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We're looking cornerback Chris Harriswho was just as important as Miller and the rest of Denver's pass rush Sunday—and in some ways more so. 

Now, we must acknowledge that pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is what allowed the Broncos to win Sunday. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady was under pressure on 30 of his 61 dropbacks. Those pressures resulted in four sacks, three throwaways and an interception. 

Brady threw three picks in total, counting one on the late two-point conversion attempt, and he finished the game with a very un-Brady-like passer rating of 56.4. It's worth noting that the Patriots were 1-3 in the regular season when Brady's passer rating fell below 90.0. 

So yes, the pass rush made Brady look like an entirely different quarterback. Miller, DeMarcus Ware and the rest of Denver's sack artists repeatedly pummeled him and forced several mistakes that we aren't used to seeing from the four-time Super Bowl champion.

According to NFL.com's Marc Sessler, Brady was hit a total of 20 times Sunday:

Marc Sessler @MarcSesslerNFL

Tom Brady took more hits in this game (20) than any QB in any game all year -- regular season or playoffs.

Yet Denver's pass rush couldn't have been such a factor if not for the defense's coverage unit. Preventing Brady from getting rid of the football quickly is what allowed the Broncos to repeatedly get to him. This, despite the team blitzing on just 16.4 percent of Brady's passes, according to Bill Barnwell of ESPN.com.

This was a task the Kansas City Chiefs were ill-prepared to handle in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Chiefs pass rush produced 47 sacks in the regular season but garnered zero against the Patriots. In fact, Brady wasn't even hit while throwing in that game, according to Pro Football Focus.

Chris Harris
Chris HarrisDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

Why did Kansas City fail where Denver did not? The Chiefs simply couldn't get to Brady while he was still holding the football. According to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Brady averaged just 2.16 seconds per pass against Kansas City.

The return of injured receiver Julian Edelman had an impact. Kansas City struggled to cover him, and the converted college quarterback finished the game with 10 receptions and 100 yards. 

Brady was regularly able to find either tight end Rob Gronkowski or Edelman against the Chiefs, and he delivered the football before defenders could reach him. This wasn't the case in Denver, and it's thanks in large part to Harris.

Because the Broncos eschewed a blitz-happy mentality in the AFC title game, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was able to utilize a variety of coverages against Gronkowski. At times, it appeared that as many as three defenders were tasked with covering him on a single play.

Edelman, though, was largely shadowed by Harris. 

This was a mild surprise, as the corner came into the game injured and indicating his snaps might be limited. They were not. According to Pro Football Focus, Harris appeared in more snaps (82) than any cornerback of the four teams to play that day. 

Harris was also rated higher than any other cornerback to play Sunday. 

Edelman had just seven receptions for 53 yards. He didn't find the end zone, and he rarely got open in time for Brady's quick release to be a factor. Because the Broncos were usually able to rely on Harris covering Edelman one-on-one (no, he wasn't on the receiver every play), the defense could afford to shade coverage toward Gronkowski. This limited the tight end's ability to get open quickly, as well.

During a recent appearance on The Dan Patrick Show, NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth explained how this disruptive coverage made Denver's pass rush effective:

They were taking away the first looks. Tom Brady kind of prides himself on being able to get the ball out of his hand quickly. And I kept saying to myself the whole game, 'I have never seen him have to go to more second and third looks, especially in a game where he was under pressure the way that they did in this game.'

Because Brady's first read was almost never there, the Patriots quarterback was often still holding the football when the Denver pass rush reached him. Even when he did get the ball away with haste, the Broncos were often there to limit the after-the-catch ability of his receivers. 

A perfect example of this can be found with about six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game, when the Patriots decided to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Denver 16-yard line. 

As you can see from the screen shot below, the Patriots first try to draw in the Denver defense with a play-action fake to running back Steven Jackson:

via NFL.com

New England then tries to break Edelman free by running him behind the line of scrimmage; however, Harris never loses track of his assignment:

via NFL.com

Edelman is where he needs to be for Brady to get him the football before the pass rush gets to him, but Harris is where he needs to be to cause the play to fail: 

via NFL.com

Had the Patriots converted and gone on to reach the end zone, the remainder of the contest would have been different. As we now know, New England went on to reach the red zone two more times before the final whistle. 

This is just one example of how a banged-up Harris was able to heavily impact the game. When you look at how infrequently Edelman was a factor, it's easy to think the outcome might have been different had Harris been sidelined.

After all, this is a game that was a two-point conversion away from going into overtime. 

Both of these teams were talented enough to deserve a spot in Super Bowl 50. On Sunday, the Broncos simply made more big plays in big moments. Harris made many of those plays, though all of them aren't going to make a highlight reel.

Harris' ability to handle Edelman had a trickle-down effect to Denver's coverage of Gronkowski, its pass rush and the play of the Broncos overall. Without him, we might well be wondering what's next for Peyton Manning rather than knowing that what's next is another shot at the Lombardi Trophy. 

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