- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

Some of the biggest difference-makers playing Championship Sunday are on defense.

The Patriots won last year’s Super Bowl because Malcolm Butler intercepted a pass at the end. The Broncos earned the No. 1 seed because of their top-ranked defense.

Arizona had six defensive touchdowns and Carolina has the league’s best linebacker duo.

The offensive stars may get most of the attention, but strong defenses helped the final four teams get here. Each team finished in the top-10 in yards and points allowed.

Fourteen defensive players were Pro Bowl picks this year and six are All-Pro selections.

Butler, Chandler Jones, Von Miller, Aqib Talib, DeMarcus Ware, Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Thomas Davis, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman are some of the standouts.

Here are the four defensive players to watch Sunday:

PATRIOTS: Defensive end Chandler Jones. He led the team with 12 1/2 sacks and forced four fumbles. Jones is battling abdominal and toe injuries. The Patriots are counting on him to be a disruptive force up front and put pressure on Peyton Manning. This isn’t the same Manning. A heavy dose of Jones in his face could make Denver a one-dimensional offense that has to rely on running the ball.

BRONCOS: Linebacker Von Miller. The three-time All-Pro has 25 sacks over the past two seasons and is constantly in the quarterback’s face. He had seven hurries on Ben Roethlisberger last week. Tom Brady has to get rid of the ball quickly or he’ll take some shots from Miller. If the Patriots double Miller, it could free up DeMarcus Ware to go after Brady.

CARDINALS: Cornerback Patrick Peterson. He’s a five-time Pro Bowl pick, a three-time All-Pro and one of the best in the NFL. Peterson allowed just two TDs all season and quarterbacks had a 61.8 passer rating throwing his way. Cam Newton hasn’t had any success targeting Peterson, so don’t expect him to challenge him much.

PANTHERS: Linebacker Luke Kuechly. It’s tough not to pick Davis or Norman, but Kuechly is one of the best defensive players in the league. He’s a three-time All-Pro in four seasons and was the 2013 AP Defensive Player of the Year. Kuechly’s interception return for a score got the Panthers going last week against Seattle. He has the ability to dominate and will make life uncomfortable for Carson Palmer and Cardinals.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AP_RobMaaddi

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