Monthly Archives: January 2014

Broncos on a mission

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NEW YORK — Jennifer Garner joined us on Radio Row today. This was the highlight of my Super Bowl week. She’ll be at the game Sunday, rooting for the Broncos. She’s been a Peyton Manning fan since his days as a Tennessee Volunteer.

That’s the extent of her connection to this post. I just wanted her photo on the blog.

Now then. Remember the dastardly way last season ended? Sure you do. For about six months afterward, the Broncos pretended they didn’t. They dared not speak of the fall-from-ahead loss to Baltimore in their first playoff game after a 13-3 regular season.

They’d put it behind them. They were focused on the future. There was, as always, no use crying over spilt milk.

A funny thing happened on the way to this season’s Super Bowl. Last year’s ending became an inspiration. Now they talk about it all the time. It is a source of motivation, even inspiration. According to Jack Del Rio, the team’s defensive coordinator and interim head coach when John Fox was hospitalized, it fuels their current quest.

“We’ve really been on a mission since we got that stinging loss at home last year in the playoff game,” Del Rio said this week. “We’ve been on a mission. Very resolute, our guys. There have been a lot of well-documented things that have occurred in the last 12 months and we’ve just kind of kept grinding. Never stopped believing that we have the ability to be here if we worked hard, worked together and committed. That’s what these guys have done.”

Amid the millions of words written and spoken this week, here’s an aspect to this tale you might not have heard: Of the Broncos’ 11 starters on defense in Sunday’s Super Bowl, only two — cornerback Champ Bailey and safety Mike Adams — started that playoff game against Baltimore a year ago.

“We’re a different group of guys collectively,” Bailey said. “But I think when you go through something like that, it kind of wakes you up, and now you’re more focused. You definitely don’t want things like that to happen again, especially in big games like that, but we’re a different team. We’re refocused. A lot of guys that were on that team, we don’t talk about it much. We just keep looking forward and try to get better every week.”

Linebacker Wesley Woodyard was a starter in the loss to Baltimore a year ago. He’s a reserve this year.

“It was something that built us up to get to this point,” he said. “That loss last year helped us get through training camp. Once we got through training camp, it was to get to Baltimore (in the Sept. 5 season opener). Once we got past Baltimore, it was, ‘Let’s get to the playoffs and win the No. 1 seed.’ Now we’re at the Super Bowl, so it kind of gave us a little extra motivation to keep continuing to get better and better.”

According to Fox, it’s not just the motivation, it’s also the experience losing in last year’s frigid conditions. With all the talk about the weather forecast for Sunday’s first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern climate, the Broncos’ coach said his team is now all but weatherproof.

“We lost a game a year ago in the playoffs in the single digits,” he said. “We hadn’t had much practice in that. Our weather had been actually pretty darn good in Denver. I think it’s actually a pretty well-kept secret, Denver’s weather. But this year we’ve gotten a little more calloused. We have had wind. We’ve played in single digits. We’ve practiced in single digits. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get. I think we’ve been exposed to it, so it won’t be foreign.”

A week ago, the long-term forecast called for cold, wind and a good chance of some combination of rain, sleet and snow. Now, just two days out, here’s the National Weather Service forecast for East Rutherford on Sunday:

“A chance of rain, mainly before 1 p.m. Cloudy, with a high near 48. Southwest wind 5 to 9 mph becoming west in the afternoon. Chance of precipitation is 30%.”

Since kickoff isn’t until 6:30 p.m. eastern, any precipitation seems likely to be long gone. Temperature and wind should be relatively mild. Not a bad forecast for the most prolific passing attack in NFL history.


The Melodrama is back

NEW YORK — Took time out from the riveting media sessions leading up to the Super Bowl — Broncos coach John Fox: “I’m happy about the Chinese new year, and I’m happy that the animal is a horse” — to check in on the latest chapter in Carmelo Anthony’s love/hate relationship with whatever team happens to be paying him gobs of cash at any given moment.

That’s right, the Melodrama is back. Did you miss it?

Stop me when this sounds familiar: Anthony can opt out of his contract with the Knicks at the end of the season and he’s trying to figure out if the hardwood would be shinier someplace else.

He engaged in a similar Hamlet-like wrestling match with himself in Denver three years ago before the Nuggets, convinced he would leave as a free agent, traded him to New York and the bright lights, big city he craved. Remember how some Nuggets fans blamed Anthony’s wife, La La, for his determination to flee Denver? Remember the theory that she needed a bigger stage for her burgeoning career as a professional celebrity?

Well, they might have had a point. Monday was release day for her literary debut, The Love Playbook, with book signings all over Manhattan, appearances on the national morning TV shows and everything. But back to our rerun.

“I definitely think he will stay,” La La said Sunday on Bravo TV’s Watch What Happens Live. “I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.”

Wait, what? I know that he wants to stay, and I support him wherever he wants to go.

Anyway, here’s the money quote:

“Listen, I used to live in Denver with him. If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere. I just want him to be happy.”

If I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere.

Odd echoes of the Sinatra line about New York — If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere — but not quite the same meaning.

The backlash was swift, and so was the back-pedal.

“Let me clarify this REAL QUICK,” she tweeted the following day. “When I said last night, ‘if I can live in Denver, I can live anywhere’ I meant living in a place with no family and no friends. I meant moving my entire life to a place I had never even been to before. In no way was I trying to disrespect Denver. I enjoyed Denver tremendously & love the city. — La La”

Glad we got that straightened out.

Anthony’s problem, of course, is the usual. He’s second in the NBA in scoring at 27.1 points per game, but his team stinks. At the moment, the Knicks are 18-27. In the woeful Eastern Conference, this record puts them just a half-game out of the playoff bracket. This is not good news for the Nuggets, who are owed the Knicks’ first-round pick in the coming NBA draft as part of the trade that sent him east in 2011.

If the Knicks miss the playoffs, that pick ends up in the draft lottery and could prove invaluable in a draft with some elite talent at the top. Because the West is so much stronger than the East, the Nuggets have a better record than the Knicks (22-21) but a worse position in the standings (2 1/2 games out of the playoff bracket). The Nuggets have to send the inferior of their draft picks to Orlando as part of the trade that brought them Andre Iguodala — temporarily, as it turns out — in 2012.

It’s all rather complicated, but one lesson seems clear: The Knicks wish they had their draft pick back. The Nuggets wish they had their draft pick back. Maybe this trading future draft picks for big-name players isn’t such a hot idea. But that’s another column.

In any case, that blockbuster 2011 trade isn’t working out that well for either team. The Nuggets received Danilo Gallinari, who blew out his knee last spring; Wilson Chandler, a talent who does more tantalizing than producing; Raymond Felton, who was exchanged for Andre Miller, who is now on indefinite leave from the team; and Timofey Mozgov, a nice if uninspiring big man. Neither team looks any closer to a championship now than when they made the deal.

Anthony’s comments about his situation are similar to his comments in Denver back in 2010. All he wants to do is win. He wants to go wherever that can happen.

“Championship is the only thing that’s on my mind, is the only thing I want to accomplish, I want to achieve,” he told reporters this week. “I’m going to do what I got to do to get that.”

Actually, he’s not. To get that, he probably needs to become a better team player rather than the sensational, one-dimensional scorer he has been throughout his career. In 10 seasons before this one, he has never appeared in an NBA Finals and only one conference final. His friend and peer, LeBron James, has won two titles and has his sights set on catching Kobe Bryant (five) and Michael Jordan (six). Melo, meanwhile, seems doomed to the Dominique Wilkins career path — lots of points, zero titles — unless he can hitch his wagon to somebody else’s team of horses.

The only way to lose his tag as a scorer who doesn’t make anybody else better is to win a championship or two, a feat he seems further from today than three years ago when he fled the Nuggets.

“The important thing is winning a championship; that’s the only way to shake it,” Bryant said the other day. “That’s the only way Michael shook it. That’s the only way any top scorer will be able to shake it.”

The Lakers are one team likely to have the space under the salary cap to sign Anthony if he’s a free agent on the open market this summer, but it’s not at all clear that adding another ballhog to a team that features the aging Bryant would give Kobe his best chance at title No. 6.

This isn’t our problem in Denver anymore, except insofar as it would help the Nuggets if the Knicks stink it up as badly as possible this season.

But think of poor La La.

“I get blamed for everything,” she said on Bravo. “No matter what happens, it’s my fault . . . I’m somehow the mastermind behind if he stays or not.”

Cue the late Warren Zevon: Poor Poor Pitiful Me.

By all accounts, La La’s book publicity tour is going swimmingly. It’s all about love and sex.

“The love at my book signing in NY yesterday was amazing!” she tweeted today. “Come out today at 7pm 271 Livingston street, Northvale, NJ Can’t wait to see you!!!”


For Champ Bailey, it’s about time

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JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Until the Super Bowl’s official Crazy as a Loon Day — that’s Tuesday, otherwise known as Media Day — the most interesting angle not named Peyton Manning or Richard Sherman is almost certainly Champ Bailey’s first trip to the NFL’s showcase after 15 seasons of excellence.

He will no doubt be overshadowed Tuesday, when an international television station will deploy the latest comely provocation — or perhaps just bring back Ines Sainz or Marisol Gonzalez — to propose to or merely hypnotize players desperately trying to follow their coaches’ instructions and stick to the subject, which is still football, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

As most football fans know, Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks in league history, having earned 12 Pro Bowl invitations in 15 seasons. And yet, when we took a thoroughly unscientific poll on KOA earlier this season asking for the five greatest Broncos of all time, Bailey finished tied for 23rd with two votes.

His is the curse of the thoroughly accomplished cornerback who isn’t constantly flapping his gums. In another era, the Broncos’ Louis Wright faced a similar fate. By definition, a great cornerback is virtually invisible. He’s so good that opposing quarterbacks throw at receivers being covered by other people. The great cover corner not only takes his opponent’s best receiver out of the game, he takes himself out, too.

It doesn’t help that Bailey has toiled for Denver during a relative drought. Since he arrived in a rare NFL blockbuster trade, exchanged by Washington for running back Clinton Portis in 2004, the Broncos have made the postseason just four times in 10 seasons. They never made the Super Bowl during his tenure before this year, and they advanced to the AFC Championship Game only once.

“It’s been a long road, but I’m just taking it in stride,” Bailey said Sunday evening, shortly after the Broncos arrived in New Jersey to begin preparations for Super Bowl 48. “I’m not trying to hype it up more than it should be. It’s still football. You’ve got to go out there and perform, and you’ve got to prepare just like we always do. Just trying to let everything stay its course and not trying to get over-hyped about it.”

Now 35, Bailey willingly admitted he has never before attended a Super Bowl, even as a fan.

“I didn’t see any reason to go,” he said. “I’m not going to cheer for anybody, and if I have no special interests in the game, other than being a fan watching it at home, why go? That’s the way I’ve always been.”

Bailey missed most of his 15th season with a foot injury, but returned near the end to play in the nickel defense. When cornerback Chris Harris went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the divisional round of the playoffs, Bailey was drafted to return to his traditional left corner spot for the AFC Championship Game. Because of his effectiveness in the slot as a nickel back, he continued to move inside when the Broncos went to five defensive backs, with reserve Tony Carter coming in to take his place on the outside.

Bailey is likely to play the same role in the Super Bowl. While the Seattle secondary gets much more attention, the combination of Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie gives Denver an accomplished pair of cover corners. And Bailey thinks the Broncos defense is playing better lately than its mediocre season-long rankings.

“It is what it is,” he said. “They (the Seahawks) played great all year, so they’re number one in the league. Our offense did the same. I think the last few weeks we’ve become a better defense. That’s all we can focus on — what we have to do — not statistics or you going to the playoffs. We’ve just got to go forward and try to get better than what we were last week.”

Several reporters made attempts to get Bailey to comment on his more talkative counterpart — Sherman, the Seahawks cornerback who made a game-saving play at the end of the NFC Championship Game and then boasted about it, denigrating San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree in the process. Bailey smiled but declined the bait.

“He’s a great corner, don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I think most of you guys notice that now because you hear about how much he talks. That’s the way he is. I enjoy guys with some personality. That’s him. I have no bad words to say about him. He’s a good player.”

Does Sherman’s penchant for bravado make it more noticeable when a receiver beats him on a route?

“I guarantee you he’ll say he’ll never get beat again, but we all are going to get beat at some point, as long as we strap them up,” Bailey said. “I think the nature of the position exposes you anyway, so it doesn’t matter if you’re talking or not.”

For whatever it’s worth, the respect is mutual.

“I think Champ Bailey is a fantastic person and player, and I think he’s going to be a Hall of Famer once his career’s done,” Sherman said Sunday. “He’s kind of laid out the base work to be a lock-down corner in this league. He did it for a long time and he’s still doing it. For him to get to a Super Bowl is a great accomplishment for him, especially at 15 years in the game. That’s not easy to do. I think you’ve got to tip your hat to him.”

Calm, pleasant logic has been Bailey’s hallmark ever since he came into the league as the seventh pick of the 1999 draft. He is honest, though seldom inflammatory or provocative. If he never had to do another interview, you get the feeling that would be fine by him.

“This is probably the worst part — sitting here answering these questions I’m going to have to answer all week,” he said. “But I’m going to enjoy it as much as possible and just get ready to play this big game.”

As cool as he is, Bailey’s teammates seem more concerned about winning him a championship ring than he is.

“We’ve been thinking about that the whole season,” said linebacker Wesley Woodyard. “It’s kind of like, this is one guy that everybody wants to win for. You know Champ, he’s a great person and a great teammate to be around and we definitely want to get this victory for him. This is a great moment for him.”


The man who saved pro basketball in Denver

The man who saved pro basketball in Denver

Quite a thrill to see my old friend Carl Scheer tonight at the Pepsi Center. This is the guy who saved pro basketball in Denver by putting together a syndicate to keep the team afloat in the 1970s.

“The price of a unit was $17,500, and you had to buy two units,” he told me in 2005, when the NBA All-Star Game came back to Denver. “So 35 guys put in $35,000 apiece to buy in. That’s how we bought the team. We had a little operating capital, but not much. The plan was they would buy season tickets and get their friends to, and for the most part that’s what happened.”

When they ran out of money in the early 1980s, Jane Moe, Doug’s wife, suggested Carl call Red McCombs, who had just sold his interest in the San Antonio Spurs. McCombs bought the Nuggets for about $4 million. Without Scheer, Denver would have lost its pro basketball franchise.


Does anybody here have a clue?

Maybe it’s a symptom of our gentle nature out here in the fly-over time zone that mainstream media seem to be giving our local pro basketball franchise a pass for its second major blunder since last spring. The net effect of these missteps has been to cost the Nuggets two of their top three players — one permanently, the other for much longer than would otherwise have been necessary.

The first, of course, was losing Andre Iguodala to free agency and getting nothing in return. This is not to disparage Randy Foye, acquired in a face-saving, after-the-fact, three-team trade, but, hey, he’s Randy Foye. No team in its right mind, even the Nuggets, would have made that trade voluntarily.

You can blame Iguodala for his decision to defect, but it is the job of the smart front office to gauge such risks and the Nuggets’ front office gauged this one poorly, as its remarks at the time demonstrate.

The second, disclosed this week, was that forward Danilo Gallinari’s new-age approach to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee — “healing response,” dude — didn’t work. I’m told the team’s medical and training staff warned management that this was the likely outcome. They were ignored.

Who pushed for it? Gallo did, through his agent, Arn Tellem. The Nuggets’ weak front office acquiesced.

So, nine and a half months after tearing his ACL in a game against Dallas on April 4, 2013, Gallinari underwent reconstructive ACL surgery, the usual treatment, earlier this week. Coincidentally, the gap between then and now is roughly how long it took Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson to recover from an ACL reconstruction and return to the field.

That is not to say Gallinari would have recovered from the standard procedure that quickly — Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose took considerably longer — but certainly he would be well on his way to returning to the floor by now. Instead, the clock has started all over again and the Nuggets’ substantial regression from last season is pretty much set in stone. Starting the clock over again now, he could easily miss the beginning of next season, too.

The impetus for this “healing response” solution came from Gallinari and doctors not affiliated with the Nuggets. A minor procedure was performed last spring to repair cartilage damage, followed by new-age stimulation methods to get the ACL to repair itself. Gallinari was so excited about this that he told his fans all about it in a video he posted on Facebook in June:

“Hello everybody. I wanted to update you all about my situation of the knee and what they did on the surgery. It’s good news because I still have my ACL. My ACL wasn’t torn, it was just partially torn, and so they were able to keep my ACL doing a special treatment called the healing response, where basically you give the chance to the ACL to naturally come back and heal, and that’s what we did. So right now the scenario for the future is completely different. I will update you all about that in the future. But for now, is very good news. I’m very happy. I hope you’re happy, too, all my fans around the world, and I’ll talk to you soon.”

The suggestion of a “completely different” timetable from traditional reconstructive surgery was intended to convey that it wouldn’t take nearly as long for Gallo to return. There were giddy projections that he might be back on the court early this season. By November, Gallinari had come around to the realization that this was not going to happen and noted something Nuggets management should have had in mind last spring — that he is far from a medical expert.

“As you are able to see, it was the thought of a guy who had this injury for the first time,” he told the Denver Post’s Christopher Dempsey. “I had no experience with this injury, this rehab. That was just my prediction. But as you can see, I was completely wrong. It’s day by day, week by week. You cannot really predict. You’ve got to just listen to your knee.”

In fact, Gallinari was experiencing continuing instability in the knee, which, of course, is what happens when you tear your ACL. It would take another two months for him to come around to the need for traditional reconstructive surgery, performed, finally, by the Nuggets’ orthopedic surgeon.

So let’s review the last 10 months:

  • April 4, 2013: Gallinari tears his ACL in a game against Dallas.
  • April 17, 2013: Nuggets complete regular season with 57 wins and 25 losses, the best record in their NBA history.
  • April 30, 2013: Gallinari undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his left knee at the Steadman Clinic in Vail to repair cartilage damage. “After a short-term rehabilitation, a date will be scheduled for Gallinari to undergo surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee,” the Nuggets say in a news release. That surgery never happens, and the Nuggets never say why. Gallinari fills in the blanks with his Facebook video in June.
  • May 2, 2013: Nuggets are eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, four games to two, by the Golden State Warriors.
  • May 7, 2013: Coach George Karl is named NBA coach of the year.
  • May 9, 2013: General manager Masai Ujiri is named NBA executive of the year.
  • May 31, 2013: Toronto Raptors announce they have hired Ujiri to run their basketball operation.
  • June 6, 2013: Nuggets fire George Karl.
  • June 17, 2013: Nuggets hire Tim Connelly to replace Ujiri.
  • June 21, 2013: At press conference introducing Connelly, team president Josh Kroenke is asked if he is confident Iguodala will re-sign with the club when he becomes a free agent July 1. “One hundred percent,” he says.
  • June 25, 2013: Nuggets hire Brian Shaw to replace Karl.
  • July 7, 2013: Iguodala agrees to a four-year deal with the Warriors worth $48 million.
  • July 10, 2013: Nuggets acquire Foye as part of sign-and-trade deal sending Iguodala to Warriors.
  • July 11, 2013: Nuggets sign free agent forward J.J. Hickson.
  • July 26, 2013: Nuggets sign free agent guard Nate Robinson.
  • Sept. 30, 2013: The Nuggets’ web site publishes a story on the eve of training camp headlined, “Expectations remain high as Nuggets open new era.”
  • Oct. 1, 2013: The Nuggets’ web site publishes a story on the first day of camp headlined, “Gallinari upbeat as Nuggets go through first practice of camp.”
  • Jan. 2, 2014: Nuggets suspend guard Andre Miller for two games for “conduct detrimental to the team.”
  • Jan. 3, 2014: Nuggets rescind suspension of guard Andre Miller, saying he will take time off with pay for personal reasons.
  • Jan. 21, 2014: Gallinari undergoes reconstructive knee surgery.

The Nuggets are currently 20-20, three games out of the Western Conference playoff bracket. A year ago through 40 games they were 24-16, on their way to winning nine of their next 11. They have lost nine of 20 home games after losing three of 41 last season. The debate among the chattering class is now whether they should tank the season in hopes of getting a good draft pick to add to the pick they are due to receive from the New York Knicks in a promising 2014 draft. In other words, whether they should start over.

(Correction: The sentence about the draft picks was poorly written, as several readers have pointed out. The Nuggets must surrender the lower (worse) of their two 2014 picks to Orlando as part of the trade to acquire Iguodala in August 2012. As I understand the argument from those who advocate tanking the season, the Nuggets missing the playoffs would give them two chances at a high lottery pick, assuming the Knicks also miss. They will not end up with both picks.) 

Longtime Nuggets fans are extremely familiar with this strategy. They saw it in 1990, when Doug Moe was fired and his aging team of the 1980s dismantled. They won 20 games. They saw it in 1996 and 1997, when the team that upset the Seattle Sonics in the 1994 playoffs was dismantled. They won 21 and 11 games in consecutive seasons, missing the NBA record for fewest wins in an 82-game season by two in 1997-98. And they saw it in 2002, when Kiki Vandeweghe dismantled the team from Dan Issel’s second go-round. They won 17 games.

Arguably, it worked twice. The dismantling of 1990 delivered a series of high draft picks that turned into Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Dikembe Mutombo, LaPhonso Ellis, Bryant Stith, Rodney Rogers, Jalen Rose and Antonio McDyess. Pre-McDyess, it had its moment in the sun in the 1994 postseason, but poor decisions and devastating injuries to Ellis and McDyess short-circuited that generation of Nuggets.

The dismantling in 2002 delivered the third pick of the 2003 draft, which became Carmelo Anthony. When Karl was hired as coach in the middle of the 2004-05 season, the Nuggets began the best run in their NBA history, winning 50 or more games five times.

But tanking was hardly the plan when Kroenke blew up the management team that won all those awards last year. When I asked him last spring if he was lowering expectations for this season after making those changes, this was his reply:

“Not at all. Not by any means. But do I think that 57 wins is within our range? Of course. Do I think that we will get there? I’m not sure. I can sit here and I can plan for the next number of years, but the one thing you can’t plan is injuries. We are starting the year and we are going to be without one of our leading scorers [Gallinari] for a significant portion of the year.

“I have a contractual situation this summer with Andre Iguodala. Andre and I know each other very well; I have had good conversations with him over the last week and I think Andre knows the direction that I want to take the team. I think that he is excited about it and that is going to be a big piece to our summer as well.

“For next year I am not lowering expectations at all. I am going to try to win every game that we can but also implementing a long-term vision on how to get to the ultimate goal of getting to the NBA Finals and winning an NBA championship.”

The confidence Kroenke expressed that his relationship with Iguodala would lead him to return to the Nuggets turned out to be misplaced. The confidence he placed in Gallinari, Tellem and their outside doctors, the ones who recommended the “healing response” treatment, also turned out to be misplaced. There are those around the association who believe the Nuggets’ front office was intimidated by Tellem, one of the game’s most powerful agents, and feared a confrontation over treatment of Gallinari’s injury.

As a result, Kroenke’s answer to the question about lowering expectations for this season turned out to be inaccurate. The Nuggets are nowhere near the team they were a year ago. As Kroenke pointed out, the injury to Gallinari was going to take a toll in any event, but had the standard medical response been taken at the time, he would now be in his 10th month of rehab from ACL surgery rather than his first week.

After all this, Nuggets fans can be forgiven for asking, as they have many times over the past 24 years: Do the people in charge of this boat have any idea what they’re doing?


A Super story

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Sportswriting so often succumbs to the mawkish that it can be hard to recognize a truly extraordinary story when it comes along. But seriously, these Broncos qualify. If Kevin Costner wrote this script — for himself, naturally — you’d roll your eyes.

Two and a half years ago, Peyton Manning didn’t know if he would play again. Two and a half months ago, John Fox didn’t know if he would coach — or do anything else — again.

In between Manning’s cervical fusion surgery and Fox’s open heart surgery, the Broncos lost a host of front-line players — cornerback Champ Bailey, left tackle Ryan Clady, pass rushers Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller. The Dumervil episode — which turned on a fax machine and communication snafu worthy of the Marx Bros. — gives the tale its comic relief.

But the Manning story trumps them all. He was understandably reticent to talk about his physical difficulties when he first arrived in Colorado. He had lived for 14 years in a professional world in which you divulged nothing about your physical vulnerabilities lest the information be used against you in your next game.

Over time, details have emerged. The first throw after multiple neck surgeries, to old pal Todd Helton in the Rockies’ indoor batting cage, was so feeble Helton thought it was a joke. Early on, he was unable to lean on his right arm or feel his right hand. They told him the nerve regeneration would take time.

“Unbelievable” is the most overused word in sports, but the fact that Manning is going to the Super Bowl for the third time at age 37 is still hard to believe, even after one of the best seasons we’ve ever seen. The fact that the Colts cut him after 14 seasons, 13 of them fabulous, was hard to believe. The fact that he found a new home in Denver, where he immediately produced consecutive 13-3 seasons, is hard to believe. Even, maybe, to him. Somebody asked if he expected this.

“I can’t say that for sure,” he said after Sunday’s 26-16 victory over the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game at Mile High. “I was truly taking things slowly, kind of phase by phase. Nobody could give me a real timetable or prediction as far as physical recovery.

“I had never switched teams before. I had no idea how long it would take to form some chemistry offensively, to get comfortable with the culture. I talked to some other players that had changed teams and I think it depends on the individual — how you mesh with your new teammates, how comfortable you are in your new surroundings. So the folks here in Denver, the city and the organization, made me feel welcome. That has certainly been very helpful. I have put a lot of hard work in. A lot of people — teammates, coaches, trainers — have helped me along the way.”

Sunday’s game was like a gift from his new home. In the middle of January, Denver delivered a September day, sun-splashed with temperatures in the 60s and a slight breeze. You might remember what Manning did last September. Fifty-two points in one game. Forty-nine in another.

The Broncos didn’t score that much against the Patriots, settling for field goals more than usual, but Manning was basically the same guy, completing 32 of 43 passes for 400 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 118.4. Among all the other records he set or challenged this year, the fact that he became just the third quarterback to throw for 400 yards in an AFC championship game seemed barely a footnote. The Broncos’ 507 yards of offense was the most a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team has ever surrendered.

You had a feeling it might be Manning’s day early when he bobbled a shotgun snap, then bobbled it again — that close to an early fumble, twice — and not only regained control but hit Eric Decker for a first down.

“New England does a great job disguising coverages and you do want to get a post-snap read on their coverages,” Manning explained. “Your job is to look the ball in, and I’m not sure I looked it in all the way. I was trying to get a read on (safety Devin) McCourty or (safety Steve) Gregory and I thought I had it, then I bobbled it again. I was glad to finally get a hold of the grip and get the laces. I know my quarterbacks coach (Greg Knapp) will be proud of me that I was still able to go through my progression on that play and find an open receiver.”

This is the sort of thing that still gives Manning pleasure, pleasing a position coach by attending to the smallest details.

His counterpart, Tom Brady, to whom he is often compared unfavorably owing to Brady’s 3-1 edge in Super Bowl championships, was also good, completing 24 of 38 for 277, one touchdown and a rating of 93.9. But he missed some available big plays down the field, one to Julian Edelman early and another to Austin Collie later.

“I just overthrew them,” Brady said.

The storyline coming in was the magnificent performance of Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount the previous week. All anybody could talk about was whether the Broncos could stop New England’s power running game. After rushing 24 times for 166 yards and four touchdowns against Manning’s former team the previous week, Blount carried five times for six yards against the Broncos.

“They didn’t play the Broncos last week,” said Bailey, who returned to his left cornerback position after a long absence and will play it in his first trip to the Super Bowl after a 15-year career that has included 12 Pro Bowl selections. “They are a good running football team, but we got some guys up front that don’t like that, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop that run. That’s really what it’s all about, the guys up front.”

After rushing for 234 yards as a team against the Colts, the Patriots managed but 64 against the Broncos. As they did the previous week against San Diego, the Broncos deployed their base defense on more snaps than usual, moving Bailey into the spot vacated by Chris Harris, who tore an ACL last week. Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made a formidable tandem in pass defense and Tony Carter, called on to replace Bailey as the nickel back, held his own.

After losing defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson late in the regular season, enormous Terrance Knighton — they call him Pot Roast for a reason — repeatedly forced his way into the Patriots’ backfield and disrupted their running plays before they could get started.

But devotion to the running game was not really the Patriots’ problem. Their plan seemed to call for Brady to pass against the Broncos’ base defense and run against the nickel. He started every possession of the first quarter with a pass. All three ended in punts, two without gaining a first down. By the time Brady got into scoring position late in the second quarter, he trailed 10-0.

“We definitely had some chances on third downs and I had a chance down some lanes and I certainly wish I would’ve made that,” Brady said. “You know, it’s a tough day for our team. We fought hard and we came up short against a pretty good team.”

The Broncos settled for field goals on four of six scoring drives, a much higher percentage than usual, but they dominated the time of possession, 35:44 to 24:16.

“We were able to hold them to some field goals defensively, but our third-down defense and our third-down offense, especially in the first half, weren’t in it,” Belichick said. “We let them get too far ahead and they stayed on the field.”

The Broncos led 13-3 at intermission and emerged from the locker room with a long touchdown drive to open the third quarter. The Patriots responded by driving 51 yards in an effort to stay in the game. Rather than take a field goal on fourth-and-3 at the Broncos’ 29-yard line, Belichick elected to go for it. Brady had barely looked upfield when Knighton slipped past Patriots All-Pro guard Logan Mankins, wrapped him up and tossed him to the ground.

The Broncos responded with another drive of their own, culminating in another field goal, which gave them a 20-point lead with 12 minutes remaining. The Patriots made it interesting with a couple of fourth-quarter touchdowns, but they never got within a single score. Manning characteristically credited offensive coordinator Adam Gase for a good plan.

“They do a great job of taking away your key receiver,” Manning said. “With us, we’ve spread the ball around so well all season, it’s hard to know who really to key on. On any given play, one of five guys could get the ball. I think that puts pressure on the defense.”

Having surrendered 280 rushing yards to the Broncos in the regular-season meeting between the teams in New England, Belichick seemed as focused as Fox on stopping the run. When Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball combined for minus one yard in the first quarter, Manning turned to his many weapons in the passing game. Demaryius Thomas caught seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Julius Thomas caught eight for 85. Veteran Jacob Tamme, his teammate in Indianapolis as well, caught the first touchdown. In all, Manning spread his 32 completions among eight receivers.

It didn’t help the Patriots that their best defensive back, Aqib Talib, went out early with a knee injury after colliding with Wes Welker, but the Broncos had too many weapons for the Patriots even before that.

A year ago, the Broncos went 13-3, got the top seed in the AFC, then blew their first playoff game, much as John Elway’s Broncos did in 1996. A year later, they bounced back to make the Super Bowl, as Elway’s Broncos did in 1997.

Fox, who underwent open heart surgery on Nov. 4, will be coaching in the championship game for the first time in 10 years. His only other trip there as a head coach ended in a 32-29 defeat for his Carolina Panthers to Brady and the Patriots.

“It feels great,” Fox said. “It’s felt great for about eight weeks. Not so much before that. My medical team did great. My wife, Robin, my nurse, did even greater. A lot of good people are the reason I’m standing here.”

Manning will be back for the first time in four years, and that will be the most compelling storyline of Super Bowl 48. Amazingly, he has a chance to rewrite his biography in the twilight of his career, much as Elway did. For 14 years, Elway was the awesomely talented quarterback who could win a ton of games but never the big one. He finished by winning consecutive Super Bowls and the old tag vanished.

Manning is the awesomely talented quarterback, albeit in a different way, who won a Super Bowl following the 2006 season and lost his second following the 2009 season. That doesn’t sound so bad, but compared to Brady, who has played in five and won three, it produced a narrative that Manning hasn’t been as good a clutch player as his rival.

The bizarre part of this analysis is the assumption that Brady’s team, the Patriots, and Manning’s team, the Colts, were essentially equivalent, leaving the quarterbacks as the difference in the number of titles. This happens to be complete nonsense. The Patriots of the Brady era were superior to the Colts of the Manning era, but these tags seem to have a glue that’s impervious to logic.

Now Manning has the opportunity Elway had, at the same age. Sunday’s win gave him a 2-1 record vs. Brady in AFC championship games. A victory in New Jersey two weeks from now would be his second in three tries at the Super Bowl. And who knows? If Manning’s Broncos continue to follow the template of Elway’s Broncos, he could have yet another opportunity at 38.

But one thing at a time. Manning lost his ability to throw a football at age 35 and regained it through a long, painstaking rehabilitation. Two years later, he produced arguably the best season by a passer in NFL history at age 37. If you hadn’t seen it, you wouldn’t buy it.

“You do take a moment to realize that we’ve done something special here, and you certainly want to win one more,” Manning said.

“I just shoot him a pre-game thought,” said his older brother, Cooper. “It was, ‘Hey, you’ve come this far. Go ahead and pretend you’re a 10-year-old playing in the front yard.’ That’s what it looked like.”


From cervical fusion surgery to Super Bowl in 2 1/2 years

From cervical fusion surgery to Super Bowl in 2 1/2 years

A little more than two years ago, coming off multiple neck surgeries in 2011, Peyton Manning didn’t know if he would ever play tackle football again.

Sunday, at age 37, he capped a record-breaking regular season by leading the team he joined for his second act, the Broncos, to a 26-16 victory over the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game. He’ll be returning to the Super Bowl for the first time in four years. For the Broncos, it’s been 15.