(Reuters) - It took a blowout loss in the Super Bowl two years ago for the Denver Broncos to transform from an offense-heavy attack to a defensive juggernaut better suited to winning the championship Vince Lombardi Trophy.
When the Seattle Seahawks routed Denver a 43-8 in that Super Bowl game they also gave the Broncos a reflection of everything they were not and needed to become: young, fast and physical.
Denver's defense has since fully realized that vision, and cemented their status by swarming Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and New England's Tom Brady to set up a clash with the Carolina Panthers in the Feb. 7 NFL championship game.
"They are the No. 1 defense on the planet, and everyone says defense wins championships," Broncos running back C.J. Anderson said of his defensive unit. "They have embraced it all season."
The Broncos organization embraced defense even before this season, starting two years ago when they signed defensive end DeMarcus Ware, added cornerback Aqib Talib, safety T.J. Ward and drafted cornerback Bradley Roby.
The winds of change continued after Denver suffered a divisional playoff loss last season.
They hired head coach Gary Kubiak, who promised the Broncos would get tougher and not simply rely on the arm of aging Peyton Manning, and brought aboard defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
The result has been devastating to opposing offenses. The Broncos finished first in total defense, pass defense and sacks this season while carrying the team through all adversity.
Manning had the most challenging year of his career, the running game faltered early and the receiving corps battled drops but none of it could halt Denver's momentum.
"Our defense is guiding us, let's make that clear," Manning said following the team's AFC divisional win over the Steelers.
And what a deep and dangerous defense it is.
Nine-time Pro Bowl veteran Ware and linebacker Von Miller lead a fearsome pass rush while Pro Bowl cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Talib, along with Roby, combine as some of the top pass defenders in the NFL.
It is something Brady found out firsthand in this season's AFC championship game, when the Broncos regularly punished him and picked off a two-point attempt that would have tied the game with 12 seconds left.
"We thrive in those situations. That's when we make our plays," Harris said. "It's something that we're used to."
Now the Broncos are set to face a weapon nobody has quite solved in Carolina's Cam Newton, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks of all-time and the quarterback of the NFL's most potent offense.
"He's probably the most dangerous player in the NFL right now," Talib conceded.
But the Broncos defense is the most dangerous unit, and they are years in the making, constructed to make amends for Denver's shortcomings of the past.
Editing by Frank Pingue