ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- His return from offseason knee surgery still a few days away, Knowshon Moreno sauntered over to the sideline one hot August afternoon in training camp. In front of him were two young running backs having trouble picking up first downs and blitzes.

Asked who he thought would win the featured role in the Denver Broncos’ backfield, Moreno nodded and flashed a sneaky smile, then spun back to the trainer’s room.

Enough said.

Neither Ronnie Hillman nor Montee Ball would pry the football from his grasp, something nobody’s been able to do since Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas stripped him on Sept. 17, 2012, which resulted in Moreno’s two-month banishment to the scout team.

That penance left Moreno determined "if I ever do get that call again" to let neither the opportunity nor the football slip through his grasp again.

Willis McGahee’s injury gave Moreno that shot at redemption, and he’s lived up to that pledge ever since: in 479 touches since that fateful fumble against the Falcons, Moreno has gotten up with the football in his hands all 479 times.

"He plays this game in a way that I absolutely love because it’s every bit of who he is, and he gives you every bit of what he has," Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville said. "He’s so amped up and hyped up before the game because he’s so excited for it and then he plays with that intensity and that energy and that effort."

Moreno holds nothing back, not even his tears, which were captured by TV cameras during the National Anthem when the Broncos visited Kansas City last month.

Moreno said in those moments before kickoff, he reflects on all the good and the bad things that have happened in his life and in football and how much he appreciates the opportunity to play the game.

That’s when the tears flow.

"I’ve always been that way, high school and in college," Moreno said. "I guess it’s just my thing, you know? I play with my emotions on my sleeve."

After replacing McGahee in 2012, he ran for 510 yards and three TDs in the final six games but blew out a knee early in Denver’s playoff game against Baltimore.

The rematch is Sunday when the Broncos (14-3) host the Patriots (13-4) in the AFC championship with the winner heading for the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, about an hour’s drive from Middletown, N.J., where Moreno grew up.

It’s one more opportunity he’s determined not to let slip away.