Tag Archives: Peyton Manning

Standing Pat

Pat Bowlen card 8.7.01_0005

The card reproduced above was postmarked Aug. 8, 2001, one day after my column on Pat Bowlen’s pursuit of a new stadium for the Broncos was published in the Rocky Mountain News:

“Dear Dave, Thanks for the nice article. I felt good reading something as nice as that this morning with my coffee. Let’s have another run. You will kick my ass! Pat”

The reference was to a run we shared in Greeley 17 years before, in Bowlen’s first summer as Broncos owner and my first as a Broncos beat writer for the Rocky, which I’d referenced in the column. The joke about feeling good when he read it referred back to a part of the interview in which he described his feelings reading the papers during the stadium campaign.

Here’s the column, published in the Rocky on Aug. 7, 2001:

Always Standing Pat

For Broncos owner Bowlen, running from critics or his beliefs hasn’t been his style

Eighteen summers ago, when Pat Bowlen was the 40-year-old rookie owner of the Denver Broncos, I was a rookie beat writer assigned to cover the team.

Competition between Denver’s daily newspapers on all matters Broncos-related was even fiercer than it is now, in part because there were only two big-league teams in town. Without baseball, our football season began about Memorial Day.

I knew two things about Bowlen: He was Canadian, and he’d just finished 135th out of more than 1,400 competitors in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon, a remarkable achievement for a man his age. I fancied myself in his league, having run a high-altitude marathon a couple of months earlier. I thought I might use this to my advantage in the ongoing beat war.

I invited the new owner to go for a run between practices in Greeley’s stifling midday heat, thinking we would form a bond and I would get an impeccable source of information.

Math was not my strong suit. I hadn’t bothered to figure his likely training pace. He ran me into the ground, to be blunt about it, and the conversation was kept to a minimum, owing chiefly to my struggle for oxygen.

Having watched any number of his players lose their breakfasts doing Dan Reeves’ suicide sprints, I remember thinking the Broncos might be the only team in sports with an owner in better shape than his players. I wondered if Bowlen’s athletic drive would make him a better owner than most of his brethren, whose idea of exercise remains martini curls in the owner’s box.

And I wondered if he meant it when he said he’d be Broncos owner until they carried him out in a pine box.

All these years later, I have my answers. Now 57, running the Broncos is Bowlen’s life. And as popular a target as he has been in the intervening period, it seems to me undeniable that he has grown into a model owner, maybe the best in sports.

***

In less than three weeks, the Broncos will play their first game in the new $400 million, taxpayer-financed stadium Bowlen worked for years to have built.

Everything about it has been controversial, from the enormous cost to the public financing to the corporate name that defrayed not merely taxpayer expense, but also Bowlen’s.

When you consider it from a Broncos fan’s point of view, there is nothing controversial about it, other than maybe the name. The new stadium provides the local franchise with a state-of-the-art venue and, perhaps more important, state-of-the-art revenue.

Whether such extravagance in the service of sport represents a reasonable public priority is a fair question. But Bowlen’s job is not to determine public priorities. Bowlen’s job is to represent the interests of his team. This he did most successfully.

“The process was remarkable when you look back at what happened and where we’re at now,” he told me. “We really started this thing back in the mid-’90s, and here we are a few weeks from playing a game there, and a month from opening up Monday night, in a facility that I believe is the best ever. I really do.

“Of course, everybody laughs, ‘Hey, there’s Bowlen boasting and bragging, self-serving statements,’ but I’ve been in all the stadiums and I think I can have a slightly objective view, and I think history will show it as being one of the better stadiums built, especially for football.”

His role as the point man in a campaign to win public financing made him a lightning rod for criticism.

“When we were going through this, when we were soliciting the taxpayers to continue that tenth of a percent (sales) tax that built Coors Field, I could get up every morning and pick up the paper and somewhere in there there’d be an article about me. None of them would be very good. Some of them would be a little better than others, but most of them would be pretty negative. You know: ‘Bowlen reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’

“I’d read that, drink my coffee and go out to the Broncos facility and forget about it. I think at some stage in my life it would have made me very upset. It’s not that you ignore it, it’s just you say, ‘Well, that’s their point of view. And here’s my point of view.’

“I know I never want to go through it again. I’ve never wanted to be a politician, and I sure as hell was a politician. I might as well have been running for governor during that period of time. So that’s the way you’ve got to approach it: Your opponent is going to say bad things about you. And you just go on and hope that your position prevails.

“It did, and as time goes by, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of critics of what we did. There will be people that say, ‘I still don’t support a tax-supported stadium.’ But now we’ve got it and it has been supported by the taxpayers. I think they’ll say, ‘This is a great new facility. I still don’t agree that we should have paid for it, but we got our money’s worth.'”

***

Bowlen admits his transition from private businessman to public figure was a rocky one. From the fur coat he brought from Edmonton to a tolerance for players of dubious character, he took plenty of shots.

But he never ran and hid from his critics, as many owners do. And his team has been consistently successful during a period in which he has been the lone constant. The Broncos have been to the Super Bowl five times in the 17 seasons Bowlen has owned them, winning the NFL championship twice.

John Elway and Mike Shanahan get most of the credit, as they should. But Bowlen’s relationship with both men is an underappreciated factor. He let Reeves go when it was either Reeves or Elway. In Bowlen’s office hangs a LeRoy Neiman rendering of Elway — a gift from the quarterback. It is a possession Bowlen prizes.

He hired Shanahan and got out of his way while remaining in daily contact as club president. While we were speaking, Bowlen took a call from Shanahan for a report on that morning’s training camp workout.

“I was very shy of public exposure, and shy, period,” Bowlen said. “So the exposure to Denver and the publicity was initially really a big shock. You can’t explain that to anybody when they’re coming in. But you learn fairly quickly that you’ve got a very short honeymoon period and that ownership is always a pretty easy target. And I think you’ve got to accept that as an owner. If you can’t take that kind of heat, then you shouldn’t be in that position. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Why not hide?

“The more you try to do that, the worse you make the situation,” he said.

Bowlen declines comment from time to time but has remained consistently accessible to the media, no matter how many shots he takes.

“I think that’s important, because we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “Quite a few owners aren’t actually running their clubs, so they have a president or somebody else that’s doing most of the talking for the club. I choose to have that position, so I’ve got to be prepared to follow through on it. That’s just part of our business.”

***

The lows were more common than the highs in his first decade, despite generally stellar regular season records.

“The toughest times, I know for sure, were losing three Super Bowls. Those are the toughest days that I can remember,” Bowlen said.

The best days are just as obvious. Both of them.

“Especially Super Bowl XXXII,” he said. “Not that XXXIII wasn’t a big thrill, too, but winning your first Super Bowl in that fashion, and being able to hand that trophy to John Elway, that’s the highlight of my career.”

Outside his office is an enormous photo of him in the locker room after that game, orange tie still tight, Vince Lombardi trophy clenched in one hand, mouth open in joy.

Next to it is a similarly sized blowup of Elway under center, calling signals, Terrell Davis in soft focus behind him. At the end of the hall is another, Shanahan in his headset on the sideline.

This is the tradition Bowlen has built.

***

A recent poll commissioned by the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-Channel 4 confirmed the Broncos’ place atop Denver’s crowded sports scene. More than half of Colorado sports fans identify the Broncos as their favorite local team.

You can attribute that to tradition, but having been around since 1967 didn’t help the Denver Nuggets, who finished behind “None.” Success drives fan loyalty, as the transplanted Colorado Avalanche proves.

Fans and media are reluctant to give Bowlen much credit. He’s not warm and cuddly. It’s easier to like players and coaches.

“To say I didn’t care about it would be a lie,” Bowlen said. “But I know enough about this industry, and Denver’s a pretty fierce place when it comes to its sports teams. So I’m extremely blessed with that, that I have a very solid city here that’s very supportive of the Denver Broncos. We’re No. 1, and that’s where I always want us to be.

“So I can’t get really upset about my image — my good image or my bad image. Because I realize if I do this for the rest of my life and they carry me out in a pine box, that’s when my image will be the best. That’s when they’ll say the best things.”

He laughed, then mentioned the late Art Rooney, who became beloved in Pittsburgh only near the end of his life. Of course, the Steelers were dreadful for a long time under Rooney.

Elway is gone and the Broncos are still Super Bowl contenders. Shanahan runs a tight ship, but someone hired him. Someone sets the tone.

If meddlesome, egotistical, venal owners are responsible for much of sport’s foolishness, then smart, dedicated, competitive owners must be responsible for some of its achievement.

In the past two decades, the Broncos have become a model franchise. That happens to be the Pat Bowlen era. And it ought to be recognized before he has any need of that pine box.

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Much has been and will be written about Bowlen’s contribution to the Broncos’ emergence as NFL royalty during his three-decade run in the corner office. These days, with high-profile owners like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban running around, it’s no longer remarkable for an owner to act as chief executive of a franchise, but it still was in 1984. This is why the onset of what was today acknowledged as Bowlen’s Alzheimer’s disease presented something of a journalistic dilemma.

As our conversation 13 years ago reflected, Bowlen was his team’s chief spokesman on big-picture issues regarding the franchise for most of his time in charge. Several years ago, he stopped speaking publicly. Broncos fans, naturally, became curious about why. As a local columnist, I got questions about it regularly. Among people in and around the organization, his cognitive issues were an open secret. With Shanahan having consolidated power over all football-related matters, Bowlen’s silence didn’t seem like a big deal from a news standpoint. Shanahan could and would address pretty much anything that came up.

Shanahan’s firing at the end of the 2008 season changed all that. There were legitimate questions about the process that led to the selection of young Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as his replacement, as well as McDaniels’ rapid accumulation of total control of the football operation, something the organization had said would not happen again after Shanahan. These decisions were attributed at times to Bowlen and at times to Joe Ellis, who had become the owner’s right-hand man. Ellis was and is a business guy, not a football guy, a fact he readily acknowledges. After Jeff Legwold and I broke the initial story of Spygate II in the Denver Post on Nov. 27, 2010, I came to the conclusion that disarray in the Broncos organization required a look at the leadership of the franchise.

I told Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ former head of media relations and by then vice president of corporate communications, that I intended to research a column about Bowlen’s health and the state of the Broncos’ leadership as the club began a new coaching search. Jim referred me to Ellis, who agreed to speak with me on Dec. 1, 2010. Shortly before we were scheduled to talk, I received a call from the media relations staff letting me know the interview was off.

The next day, shortly after noon, I received an email from the sports editor at the Post, Scott Monserud, addressed to all three Post sports columnists — Woody Paige, Mark Kiszla and me. It instructed us not to write about or publicly discuss Bowlen’s health unless Bowlen chose to discuss it. Woody had already written his piece referring to Bowlen’s admission of “short-term memory loss.” We were to go no further. The instructions came from “the top, the very top,” according to Monserud. This was as clear as he could make it that they came from Dean Singleton, then owner and publisher of the Post, who had a close relationship with the Broncos. But just in case, Monserud added that the instructions came “from (editor) Greg (Moore), via Dean, to make sure we’re all on the same page.” I surmised that Ellis had called Dean, who told Moore to squash my inquiry.

I’d known Bowlen a long time and liked him very much. Our shared interest in endurance sports as younger men had created a bond of sorts, even if I couldn’t keep up with his six-minute miles. From a journalistic perspective, there was no question in my mind that he qualified as a public figure. And the many questions surrounding the Broncos following McDaniels’ firing made it seem to me an obvious and necessary avenue of inquiry.

I had no desire to cause Bowlen or his family any more pain than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does on its own, but I believed then and still do that the ability of a major business in town to call the local publisher and suppress an uncomfortable story was unhealthy.

Fortunately, Bowlen and/or Ellis salvaged the situation brilliantly by hiring Elway to run the football operation. A year later, Elway signed Peyton Manning to play quarterback and the glory days were back. The questions surrounding Bowlen’s health receded again until today’s announcement.

Until the last few years, Bowlen was as down-to-earth and accessible as any owner in sports. He devoted himself completely to his team’s success, and he achieved it. Thirty summers later, Colorado is poorer for his exit from the stage.


A stunning self-destruction

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A Broncos nightmare in New Jersey ended in a Seahawks celebration

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Super humbling of the highest-scoring team in NFL history began on the first play from scrimmage and continued pretty much unabated for the remainder of a deceptively warm and beautiful February evening just off Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike.

It was shocking in its suddenness and humiliating in its comprehensiveness. The Broncos played like a pickup squad that met for the first time an hour before kickoff.

The first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern climate turned out to be a travesty all right, but the environmental conditions were the one factor the Broncos couldn’t blame. The temperature at kickoff was 49, fully 10 degrees warmer than the coldest Super Bowl on record, back when they used to play outdoors in New Orleans.

If Mother Nature treated the Broncos well, she was alone. The Seattle Seahawks manhandled and dismantled them in every way imaginable on their way to a 43-8 blowout. Give them credit, as the Broncos kept saying afterward, but blame the Broncos, too. Their early wounds, the ones that set the doleful tone, were self-inflicted.

It began on the first play from scrimmage, when the Broncos’ first snap from their own 14-yard line sailed past Peyton Manning into the north end zone of MetLife Stadium. Somehow, the Broncos were lulled by the neutral site into believing they would be able to convey their signals verbally. Had the game been in Seattle, they would undoubtedly have used a silent snap count. Buried deep in their own end, enveloped by the boisterousness that always accompanies the beginning of a Super Bowl, Manning lined up in the shotgun and called for the ball.

Center Manny Ramirez failed to snap it. So Manning walked toward the line to reset the play. Ramirez, suddenly realizing he was late, chose that moment to snap the ball.

“That was on cadence, so it was about what he was saying,” a miserable Ramirez explained afterward. “It was really loud and I (thought) I heard him. Unfortunately, I was three seconds late.”

“A little bit of a cadence issue,” said head coach John Fox.

“I felt terrible for them,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “We didn’t deserve that. They just gave it to us.”

Running back Knowshon Moreno hustled back to the ball, turning the faux pas into a safety rather than a touchdown. It was a screw-up, but the damage was minimal. Twelve seconds into the game, the score was 2-0. It was the fastest score in Super Bowl history.

“That’s the way the start of any Super Bowl is,” said receiver Wes Welker, a veteran of three. “It’s going to be loud. The fans are going to be yelling. They don’t really know why they’re yelling, it’s just the start of the Super Bowl. We didn’t prepare very well for that, and it showed.”

Imagine that. A team that prided itself on preparation all season was unprepared for something that seemed obvious to a player who had been there before.

Following the required free kick, the Seahawks’ lightly-regarded offense marched 51 yards on its first possession, converting two third downs along the way. The Broncos again managed to minimize the damage, stopping the Seahawks about six inches short of a first down inside the 10-yard line and forcing a field goal. When Manning & Co. got the ball back, it was still only 5-0.

Following a three-yard gain on a running play, Manning completed the first two passes he threw — for two yards to Demaryius Thomas and three yards to Julius Thomas. Two completions, five yards. They had to punt.

The Seahawks began another march, using up most of the remainder of the first quarter. The Broncos’ defense once again limited the damage near the goal line, forcing another field goal when linebacker Nate Irving knocked an apparent touchdown pass out of the hands of wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.

The first quarter wasn’t over yet and the Broncos had already prevented two touchdowns on hustle plays by Moreno and Irving. Despite a disastrous start, the score was a manageable 8-0.

For the third time, Manning took the controls. For the third time, the crowd waited for the precision passing game that produced a record 606 regular-season points. A five-yard completion to Welker. A three-yard run from Moreno.

But wait. When Moreno was stopped, he was still on his feet. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons ripped the ball from his grasp. Guard Zane Beadles made the Broncos’ third fortuitous play of the quarter, falling on the loose ball and preventing a turnover. Instead of third-and-2, now it was third-and-7.

Manning tried to convert it by hitting Julius Thomas, his tight end, up the middle, but Seahawks pass rusher Cliff Avril came around right tackle Orlando Franklin on a speed rush and Manning was forced to step up in the pocket to avoid him. He let loose a throw that wasn’t even close to its mark — a duck, as Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would call it, both too high and behind the intended receiver. It landed gently in the arms of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a room service interception.

“A poor play on my part,” Manning admitted afterward.

When the first quarter ended, the Seahawks had the ball at the Broncos’ 17-yard line on their way to a 15-0 lead. The Broncos had possessed the ball only momentarily, it seemed, mostly because they were in such a hurry to give it away whenever they did.

Yet another self-inflicted wound contributed to that first Seahawks touchdown. The Broncos defense, again playing damage control near its goal line, forced a third-and-4 from their 5-yard line. It was looking to limit Seattle to another field goal when nickel back Tony Carter face-guarded Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in the end zone while gripping his jersey, possibly the most obvious pass interference call of the season. This resulted in a first down at the 1. It still took the Seahawks two running plays to punch it in.

Three minutes into the second quarter, the most prolific offense in NFL history didn’t have a first down. Credit the Seahawks’ hard hitting or pass rush if you like, but if this was tennis, both the bad snap and errant throw would be ruled unforced errors.

Moments later, the Seahawks lived up to their reputation for creating turnovers. Avril again beat Franklin, this time pushing past him and hitting Manning’s arm as he threw. The ball fluttered like . . . well . . . yes . . . a wounded duck, directly into the arms of Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, whose 69-yard return for a touchdown would be the key to his Super Bowl MVP award a couple of hours later.

Now it was 22-0. Slightly more than three minutes remained in the first half. The Broncos desperately needed a score. Slowly, uncertainly, they began to matriculate down the field, in Hank Stram’s famous phrase from another era. They achieved a first down. Then another. Facing a manageable third-and-4 for yet another, Louis Vasquez, their best offensive lineman, was called for a false start. Yet another error. Maybe Seattle’s fearsome foursome made him do it, but still.

Moments later it was fourth-and-2. Fox decided to go for it.

“I’m thinking that three points wasn’t going to make a big difference in the game, and it proved to be true,” he explained.

At the snap, it looked like an uncovered Julius Thomas signaled to Manning for a simple pitch-and-catch that would move the chains. Instead, Manning looked the other way and threw the ball into the ground at the feet of Demaryius Thomas.

In the press box, in the stands, on social media and in living rooms all over Colorado, people who had watched this offense operate like a jet engine all season watched in astonishment as it sputtered like a lawn mower. Who were these guys?

It wasn’t just that the Broncos had switched hotels the night before the game, they appeared to have switched players, too. The replacements looked a lot like the guys they’d replaced. They even wore the same numbers. But they didn’t play anything like them.

The cherry on top came on the first play of the second half. Matt Prater, the Broncos’ Pro Bowl kicker who led the league with 81 touchbacks, inexplicably pooched the kickoff in an apparent attempt to keep it out of the hands of returner Percy Harvin. Kicking it out of the end zone, which Prater had done more often than any other kicker, would accomplish the same result.

Harvin had rushed twice in the first half for 45 yards. Rather than match strength with strength and let Prater try to boom the kickoff across the Hackensack River, the Broncos got cute. Harvin charged out of the end zone and the pooch bounced directly into his hands. Members of the Broncos’ coverage unit converged and knocked each other down as if playing electric football. Harvin took it all the way for a touchdown, 87 yards in all.

The Seahawks had again scored just 12 seconds into the half. This would converge with the narrative surrounding their 12th man — their fans, who arguably influenced the mistake that led to the first 12-second score — into a sort of mythic sense of numerological destiny.

More to the point, it was now 29-0 and the Broncos had shown themselves to be vulnerable in every phase of the game. No team had overcome a deficit greater than 10 points to win any of the previous 47 Super Bowls. At 2-0, 5-0, 8-0, 15-0, a Broncos comeback still seemed plausible, given their own precedents. Even at 22-0, a miraculous comeback from a team that averaged 37.9 points a game in the regular season seemed possible.

But the Harvin kickoff return dashed whatever hope remained. Not only was a 29-point deficit an insurmountable obstacle against the league’s best defense, the Broncos had shown little sign of even elementary competence. The more pertinent question seemed whether the Seahawks could impose the first shutout in Super Bowl history.

“We just weren’t real sharp executing our offense,” Manning said in perhaps the understatement of the season. “We got ourselves in a hole and we weren’t able to overcome it.”

Once the game was out of hand, the Broncos managed to roll up enough meaningless yards to make the final statistical comparisons look benign. In fact, of the six Super Bowl records set Sunday, four were by the Broncos. Of course, one of them was for most Super Bowl losses (five), which is not a record you want to hold. But Manning’s 34 pass completions were a record, as were Demaryius Thomas’ 13 catches. They were as hollow as any Super Bowl records ever set.

The Seahawks set records for fastest score to start a Super Bowl and most time playing with a lead (59 minutes, 48 seconds).

The cumulative record for losses in the big game might seem fastidious, conflating a 21st century result with games played in the 1970s and ’80s, but this one was eerily reminiscent of those losses in the ’80s, when the Broncos won the AFC in three out of four seasons and were blown out by successively larger margins in the ensuing Super Bowls — 39-20 by the Giants following the ’86 season, 42-10 by the Redskins following the ’87 season and 55-10, the worst blowout in Super Bowl history, by the 49ers following the ’89 season.

In each case, the result was disturbing and dispiriting. The Broncos had gone through a long season and postseason with the look of a champion, only to look utterly overmatched in the most important game of all. It’s hard to know how to react to such a dramatic reversal of fortune.

“I think we were playing a great football team,” Manning said. “I think we needed to play really well in order to win and we just didn’t come anywhere close to that . . . . Give Seattle credit. They’re an excellent football team and they caused a lot of our mistakes. But at the same time, we just didn’t play well tonight.”

Twenty-four hours after winning his record fifth Most Valuable Player award, Manning bristled when asked if the loss was embarrassing.

“It’s not embarrassing at all,” he said. “I would never use that word . . . The word embarrassing is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”

Welker was not so reticent.

“To get this far and lose like this, it’s embarrassing,” he said.

“They dominated us across the board,” said fellow receiver Eric Decker.

The Seahawks were exuberant, of course, having won so much more powerfully and easily than even they expected. The Broncos needed to credit them to save face, and certainly they kept Manning unsettled in the pocket and hit hard in the secondary, as is their reputation.

Still, the number of self-inflicted wounds made the Broncos look amateurish and unqualified for the game. They finished with four turnovers — two lost fumbles and two interceptions — to Seattle’s none. The third turnover, by Demaryius Thomas following a 23-yard, third-quarter completion deep in Seahawks territory when a comeback was still theoretically possible, verged on slapstick.

Which was a terrible shame, considering how well the Broncos played all season. You could empathize with Manning’s sense of dignity without agreeing with him that this was not an embarrassment.

On any given Sunday, and all that. They just picked the most important game of all to pull out a true stinker.

“We had some chances to get back into it,” said John Elway, the quarterback in those losses of the ’80s and now the team’s executive vice president of football operations. “We just couldn’t get it done.”

“This team used last year’s playoff loss to fuel us; I think it made us a better team,” Manning said. “Hopefully we can use this loss to fuel us and make us better.”

Maybe they will. Elway’s Broncos were unable to bounce back from the Super Bowl blowouts of the ’80s until nearly a decade later, but Manning’s team was so uncharacteristically bad, maybe it can turn this one around much faster.

Asked if the loss reminded him of those blowouts a generation ago, Elway replied: “No. Those are separate.”

Still, for all the praise Manning gets when he’s dominating opponents, it is only fair to point out his mediocre play when opponents dominate him. The Broncos’ oft-maligned defense wasn’t great in this game, but it was required to perform a great deal of damage control for its far more famous offense.

Manning completed 34 of 49 passes for 280 yards, many of them in garbage time, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 73.5. His counterpart, second-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the former Rockies farmhand, was 18 of 25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 123.1. Wilson was clearly the better quarterback in this championship game.

“Offensively, we were clicking on all cylinders,” Wilson said. “That’s what we wanted to be, especially the last game of the season, to finish that way in that fashion. That’s our mindset. We want to be champions every day and bring it every time.”

Credit the Seahawks for playing a very sharp game. They deserve congratulations on winning their first NFL championship in very convincing fashion.

“We ran into a buzz saw,” Fox said.

That’s a little too easy. The Seahawks played very well, but the Broncos took themselves out of the game early by playing very badly. From a vantage point high above the action on a beautiful night for football in the New Jersey Meadowlands, it looked like the highest-scoring offense in NFL history mostly self-destructed.


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.”


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.


Learning from the past

It may not be obvious whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is the best quarterback of their generation, although we’re sure to hear plenty of bloviating on the subject over the next seven days as they get ready to compete for a berth in the Super Bowl.

On the other hand, there’s not much doubt about the superior Saturday Night Live host.

Following the Broncos’ 24-17 playoff victory over San Diego on Sunday, a reporter wanted to pursue an ESPN “exclusive” that Manning’s future in football will be decided by a neck exam in March. Never mind that this was also true last year and the year before that. An exclusive is an exclusive, after all.

So the reporter asked him, immediately following his first playoff victory as a Bronco, if this is weighing on his mind.

“What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth,” Manning said. “That’s priority number one.”

Somebody at the ad agency representing Budweiser just went to work.

For two weeks, Manning and the Broncos heard about nothing but history. A digital loop replayed the nightmare from last year’s playoff loss, Rahim Moore amazingly still misjudging the ball after all this time. They were reminded that this nightmare was possible only because Manning’s offense played it conservatively at the end of regulation, trying to eat clock rather than get first downs. As a result, it gave the ball back to the Ravens with just enough time for the infamous pratfall.

They also heard about more recent history, this season’s games against the Chargers, their playoff opponent. San Diego dominated the time of possession in both games by running the ball and stopping the run.

Once this train of reminding got going, nobody could find the brake. The web site Pro Football Talk tweeted more grim numbers just before kickoff Sunday:

“Philip Rivers is 6-2 all-time in Denver. Peyton Manning was 1-5 with the Colts in his last six games against Chargers.”

The fact that Manning went into the game 3-1 against the Chargers as the Broncos’ quarterback, which would seem more recent and more relevant, considering it was the Broncos and not the Colts playing in this game, did not merit mention.

What the Broncos did with all this history was basically what the computer does in WarGames. They learned.

This time, when they got the ball with a chance to run out the clock at the end of regulation, they played more aggressively, passing on third down to maintain possession rather than running to keep the clock ticking.

They also designed an offensive game plan that allowed them to run the ball better, often running out of passing formations that spread the defense. They designed a defensive plan that allowed them to stop the run better, playing more linebackers and fewer defensive backs on more snaps. Between the two, they reversed the Chargers’ time of possession advantage in the first two games.

After rushing for a pathetic 18 net yards in their loss to the Chargers in December, the Broncos racked up 133 this time — 82 from Knowshon Moreno and 52 from rookie Montee Ball. After giving up 177 rushing yards in that loss, they surrendered only 65 this time. It didn’t hurt that the Chargers’ best running back, Ryan Mathews, was hobbled by an ankle sprain. After rushing for 127 yards in the Chargers victory, he managed only five carries for 26 yards in this one.

All of this added up to domination of the game for the first three quarters. Clad in orange on a crisp, windy day, Mile High rumbled with enthusiasm when the Chargers had the ball and turned into a library when Manning was engineering the no-huddle. The Broncos didn’t score as much as they usually do, in part because of their long, patient drives and in part because one of them ended when Manning threw a pass off Eric Decker’s chest that turned into an interception in the end zone.

Still, they led 17-0 after three quarters and their defense looked dominant.

Then cornerback Chris Harris went out of the game and, just like that, the defensive dominance disappeared. We’ll come back to that in a minute. But that’s why, just like last year, the Broncos found themselves protecting a seven-point lead in the waning minutes.

Last year, up 35-28 on the Ravens with two minutes to play, the Broncos faced a third-and-7. Rather than attempt to throw for the first down to maintain possession, they called a running play to burn precious seconds off the clock. They were forced to punt and everybody knows what happened after that.

This year, leading the Chargers 24-17 with three minutes to play, they faced a third-and-17 from their own 20-yard line. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase ordered what Manning would call “a wheel-type route” for tight end Julius Thomas. With the pocket collapsing around him, Manning waited patiently for the route to develop down the field. Then he hit a wide-open Thomas down the right sideline for 21 yards and a first down.

“Third-and-17, you know you’re going to have to hold the ball a little bit longer just to give guys a chance to get down the field,” Manning said. “It was the perfect call against the perfect coverage, which you may get one or two of those a game. It certainly came at a good time. Adam dialed it up. It was something we worked on, and it was nice we were able to execute.”

Moments later, the Broncos were presented with a virtual replay of last year’s call. With 2:12 showing, they faced a third-and-6 from their 45. Again, Gase called for a pass. Again, Manning found his big tight end, this time for nine yards and another first down.

It seemed vaguely Shakespearean that Mike McCoy, the offensive coordinator who ordered the running plays that led to defeat a year ago, was on the opposite sideline Sunday, coaching the Chargers and watching his successor correct his mistake.

“Certainly two huge third-down conversions, which were the difference in the ball game,” Manning said.

The successive first downs exhausted the Chargers’ timeouts. From there, the Broncos were able to run out the clock. The Chargers never got the ball back and never had an opportunity to pull off the miracle finish the Ravens managed a year ago.

“I think there’s been a lot of changes since last year,” Manning said. “We are much more experienced. We’ve been through a lot and have been in different situations. Those were two huge plays. I really loved Adam’s aggressive calls. Julius and I have spent a lot of time working on those particular routes — after practice, in practice. To me, that is one of the most rewarding parts of football. When you put that work in off to the side or after practice and it pays off in a game, it really makes it feel like it was worth it. Those two plays specifically were certainly worth the hard work.”

So if the Broncos continue to be such good students of the past, perhaps they can come up with a way to beat Brady and the Patriots next week and advance to the Super Bowl in New Jersey. But first, they’ll have to look carefully at what happened in the fourth quarter Sunday.

“We got it going pretty good, and they knew it,” said Rivers, the Chargers’ quarterback. “If we got it one more time, I believe deep down that we would’ve tied that thing up. But we didn’t. Those are all a bunch of what-ifs.”

Through three quarters, the Chargers had five first downs and 25 net passing yards. In the fourth, they had eight and 169.

Did the Broncos lay back in a somewhat softer defense with a three-score lead to start the quarter? Sure, there were a couple of zones in there. But the most obvious difference in their defense was the substitution of veteran Quentin Jammer for Harris late in the third quarter, when Harris went out with what the club reported as a knee or ankle issue. Coach John Fox said he had no update afterward, making Harris’ health the biggest question of the coming week.

For three quarters, the Broncos’ defensive success was based on their ability to leave their cornerbacks in man-to-man coverage on San Diego’s wide receivers while everybody else played the run first. With Harris and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside and Champ Bailey playing nickel back covering the slot, it worked well. Once Harris went out, it didn’t.

Suddenly, the Chargers were reeling off big plays in the passing game. Jammer, the longtime Charger, always seemed to be at the scene of the crime. On San Diego’s first scoring drive, he lined up opposite former Bronco Eddie Royal, who ran a crossing route. Somewhere about the middle of the field, Jammer suddenly turned and looked back to the side he had vacated, as if unsure of the scheme. Royal ran away from him to the other side of the field. Rivers hit him and Royal turned upfield, gaining 30 yards. Moments later, Rivers went after Jammer again, throwing a 16-yard touchdown pass over him to Keenan Allen.

Manning responded by marching the Broncos down the field for another touchdown to make it 24-7 with 8:12 left. Again, a three-score lead looked comfortable. In fact, when Rivers made the mistake of going after Rodgers-Cromartie twice in a row on San Diego’s next possession, the Chargers faced a fourth-and-5 at their own 25-yard line. If the Broncos had stopped them there, they might have coasted home.

Instead, Rivers, who had ignored the Allen-Jammer matchup on third down, went deep for Allen on fourth. Jammer stumbled turning to follow Allen’s out move and the Chargers’ rookie star was wide open when Rivers hit him for a 49-yard gain. A minute later, it was 24-14, and two minutes after that, following a successful onside kick, 24-17.

This is what set up the Broncos’ final possession and the aggressive play-calling and execution that allowed them to protect a one-touchdown lead and close out the win.

Perhaps blaming this sudden change in the dynamic on Jammer is too simplistic. No doubt there were others who made mistakes as well. But if Harris is not ready to resume his role for next week’s AFC championship game at Mile High, the Broncos will have a decision to make.

Sunday, they had basically three options. They could have subbed in rookie Kayvon Webster, but it was Webster that Rivers victimized in the Chargers’ December victory. Just as Manning targeted Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper a few weeks before, Rivers pretty much threw at whoever Webster was covering until Webster was removed from the game.

They could have moved Champ Bailey to the outside. Bailey missed much of the season with a foot injury. Broncos coaches have been easing him back in as a nickel back, limiting his snaps. Still, I was a little surprised they didn’t move him outside for the final 15 minutes of Sunday’s game when Harris went down. After all, he’s been to 12 Pro Bowls, most recently last year.

Jammer was the third option, and the one they chose, perhaps because he played for the Chargers all those years and perhaps because he’s the guy who replaced Webster after Rivers toasted the rookie in December.

A fourth option would be Tony Carter, but he was inactive for Sunday’s game. That will probably change next week if Harris is unavailable.

Against the Patriots next week, the Broncos will need a game plan similar to the one they executed Sunday. The Patriots rushed for 234 yards Saturday in beating the Colts, 43-22. They scored all six of their touchdowns on the ground. But if the Broncos are going to leave their corners on islands against Brady, those corners will have to play as well as Rodgers-Cromartie and Harris did Sunday.

The Broncos will also have to learn what they can from their loss at New England just before Thanksgiving. In a game shaped by cold, windy conditions, the Patriots fumbled six times, losing three, before intermission. Von Miller returned one of them 60 yards for a touchdown and the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime.

The second half was pretty much a mirror image. It was the Broncos who turned it over three times and the Patriots who came back to take a 31-24 lead. The Broncos regrouped, driving for a tying touchdown near the end of the fourth quarter, but a freak play in overtime — a punt bouncing off Carter, who was on the coverage unit — handed New England a three-point win.

Offensively, the Broncos should be at full strength against the Patriots. Wes Welker, the former Patriot, returned to action following a concussion wearing a helmet nearly as big as he is.

“I’ve been practicing with it the last few weeks, so I got used to it, but it is kind of looking like The Jetsons out there,” Welker said.

“It was the first time since November that we’ve had Decker and (Demaryius) Thomas and Julius and Welker on the field together,” Manning said. “We’ve battled through some injuries.”

This was Manning’s theme going into the game. He told his teammates to be proud of what many outsiders seemed to take for granted.

“I talked to the team last night,” he reported. “I said, ‘You need to be commended for getting back to this point.’ We’ve been through more this year — it’s hard to explain all the stuff we’ve been through, offseason and in-season. To get to this point was really hard work, and to win this game was really hard work. We are proud and happy to be at this point, and we certainly want to keep it going.”

The Broncos exorcised one demon Sunday. Another awaits. In between, at least one of them had a Bud Light.


The engineer as artist: Peyton Manning sets a new standard

For those who weren’t in or around Denver at the time, it may be hard to believe that there was a vigorous debate, at least on sports talk radio, about the relative merits of Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning as the Broncos’ quarterback for 2012 and beyond.

One of the arguments advanced by the Tebow backers was there wouldn’t be much “beyond” with Manning. He was not, as they say, a quarterback of the future. At 36, he was a veteran of 13 NFL seasons coming off multiple neck surgeries and a full season of inactivity.

To jettison Tebow, who had just led the Broncos to an improbable postseason berth and first-round playoff victory in 2011, and replace him with what might turn out to be a relic, must be an act of desperation. The final acts of John Unitas, in San Diego, and Joe Namath, in Los Angeles, were referenced. John Elway, now pulling the strings in the Broncos’ front office, must be jealous of Tebow’s celebrity, some said. With many Tebow backers animated by imperatives beyond the world of football, it got pretty silly.

I remember one contending on the radio show that a Manning signing could only be justified by another championship parade in downtown Denver.

It did look that way. Manning was Elway’s attempt to go for greatness right away, just one year into his tenure as owner Pat Bowlen’s chief football executive. If the Broncos didn’t win a championship during whatever time Manning had left on the field, they would have to start over with his understudy, Brock Osweiler, which would make them just another team banking on potential.

Sometime between then and now, Manning changed all that. He recovered his brilliance so quickly, and made such an impact on the Broncos’ culture, and covered so ably for those physical abilities slowest to return, that he presented an opportunity we never imagined. He reached a skill level never before seen in football, a combination of intellectual and athletic rigor that took the game to another level. The quarterback was no longer a gunslinger. He was an engineer.

The Broncos have finished with a won-loss record of 13-3 in each of Manning’s two seasons in Denver. Before his arrival, they won that many games four times in 34 years of 16-game schedules. This year, at 37, Manning put up the best statistical season by a passer in NFL history.

Football fans had the sublime pleasure today of watching him finish the regular season with near perfection. He established league records for passing yards in a season (5,477, exactly one more than Drew Brees in 2011) and passing touchdowns (55, five more than Tom Brady in 2007). His largesse extended broadly, allowing the Broncos to set an NFL record for most players scoring ten touchdowns or more (five: Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Eric Decker and Wes Welker).

When Manning took back the passing touchdown record from Brady in the Broncos’ fifteenth game last week, he reached 51, one more than the previous mark. He predicted this record, like its predecessors in the category, would prove temporary. Manning began this stair-step escalation by exceeding Dan Marino’s 20-year-old mark of 48 by one in 2004. Brady slipped past, again by one, in 2007. Busting Brady’s six-year-old record by five may mean Manning’s mark stands a bit longer.

He made today’s regular-season finale at Oakland look like a Broncos practice and the Raiders’ defense like the Broncos’ scout team. Actually, that’s probably unfair to the Broncos’ scout team. In former Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s second season as a head coach, the Raiders finished as though they deserved their 4-12 record.

As long as Manning was on the field, the matchup seemed unfair. The Broncos had five possessions. Four ended in touchdown passes, the fifth in a Matt Prater field goal. Manning failed to complete only three of 28 passes, spread the 25 completions among nine receivers and passed for those four touchdowns, one of them a gorgeous 63-yard bomb to Demaryius Thomas that made even Manning smile. It did not help the Raiders that their offense, directed by Terrelle Pryor, kept giving the ball back, once at its own 21-yard line on a bad snap. By halftime, it was 31-0.

“Obviously, not our best effort in the first half of the football game,” Allen said. “We got beat by a better team today. Offensively, we weren’t able to really get anything going. Defensively, obviously, that quarterback is really good. I thought there was a couple times where we had some opportunities to potentially get off the field. I thought they put the throw in there when they needed to and they were able to convert and that’s the difference between getting off the field and saving points and giving up points.”

Following the intermission, Broncos coach John Fox chose discretion, replacing Manning with Osweiler. This was, as the ever-competitive Manning pointed out afterward, “a coach’s decision.”

“Our goal was to play as good as we have to date this season,” Fox said. “And the way it worked out, I thought the first half was about as good in all three phases as we’ve been all year. It allowed us to get some guys out of the game and rest them, not to risk injury, and still take care of business on the field.”

By taking care of business, Fox meant winning the game and earning the top postseason seed in the AFC, meaning any and all Broncos playoff games prior to the Super Bowl will be in Denver. Of course, that was the situation last year, too, but we’ll get to that in a minute. As is his custom, Manning explained a memorable regular season by talking about the team’s accomplishments and not his own.

“I think it’s been really good focus on the players’ part,” he said. “We’ve had a number of distractions — injuries, off-field situations, on-field situations — but I think the one constant has been the players’ focus. They have remained focused on the task at hand, on trying to improve everybody’s individual play, which hopefully would result in better team play. But it’s a season unlike any other for me as far as having your head coach ill and missing for a while. We’ve had some injuries. We had the offseason. Those things are well documented. But the players have kind of kept their focus on trying to do players’ jobs. I think that’s been constant, and I think that’s served us well.”

This is the Manning mantra: Do the little things, do your job, take care of every detail. If every individual does that, it can add up to something quite remarkable. Particularly if the signal-caller, the quarterback, is the most maniacal of all about this preparation.

The 34-14 final score against Oakland gave the Broncos a season total of 606 points, another league record. For the benefit of trivia buffs and those already preparing for Mardi Gras, the 2011 New Orleans Saints retained the record for most yards gained in a season with 7,474. This year’s Broncos managed 7,317 for second place.

Manning’s surgical accuracy prompted analyst Solomon Wilcots to extol him on the CBS telecast as the greatest quarterback in the 94-year history of the NFL. Watching him against the Raiders, it was hard to argue. If he doesn’t win his fifth most valuable player trophy — extending another record — there should be an investigation. His relentless drive, combined with the Broncos’ seemingly endless supply of capable receivers, made Denver’s merciless offensive efficiency seem inevitable. Compared to the hope-and-prayer offenses of so many teams, it represented the NFL’s version of fine art.

On the flip side, there was this, from CBS play-by-play man Kevin Harlan: “The Raiders’ performance in the first half was about as bad as we’ve seen.”

Manning has made a lot of teams look that way this year. Three that didn’t, the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, made the postseason tournament as well, so now we get a week or two of reminiscing about last year, when the Broncos had the same record and the same playoff seed and still lost their first playoff game, to the Baltimore Ravens.

So we’ll see. Tony Dungy, Manning’s coach for seven years in Indianapolis, likes his chances to get through the AFC side of the bracket this year because none of the other playoff teams have great defenses to stop him. Where the 2012 edition was riding an 11-game winning streak and feeling pretty good about itself, this year’s version lost just three weeks ago and remembers it quite clearly.

Another advantage is the still-raw memory of that bitterly cold day last January when the Broncos surrendered a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation by blowing the coverage on a hope and a prayer by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Elway likens it to 1996, when the Broncos team he quarterbacked to a 13-3 record was upset in its first home playoff game by the Jacksonville Jaguars. That memory helped propel those Broncos to Super Bowl championships after each of the next two seasons.

Are these Broncos ready to do the same? They certainly looked like it in the regular season finale, although allowances must be made for the quality of the opposition. The regular-season losses to Indianapolis, New England and San Diego made it clear they are not invincible. Environmental conditions can turn any outdoor mid-winter game into a crap shoot, including the Super Bowl this year in New Jersey. So can ball control that keeps the football away from Manning, as the Chargers demonstrated.

Whatever happens in the new year, it no longer seems even remotely true that the Broncos need to win a Super Bowl to justify the Manning signing. It has already brought the Broncos two of the best seasons in their history. Manning’s remarkable comeback and relentless work ethic have set a standard we’ve never seen before.

He was asked, of course, whether the Broncos need to confirm the regular season this year in the playoffs.

“Well, sure,” he said. “We’ve had our goals all along. And this is why you work hard in the offseason. This is why you lift weights and have the offseason program, is to give yourself an opportunity to play in the postseason. But I’ll tell you, it’s a fun group of guys to play with. Offensively, it’s been a fun unit to meet with, practice with, watch tape with, work after practice with. And I’ve really enjoyed the coaches and the players on offense. It’s been a fun group.”

This is Manning acknowledging the obvious, but also sharing what he can about how he and his teammates got to this point. He loves the process, from offseason workouts to training camp and every week of practice through the long season. Only someone who loves it that much could so utterly master it. But he won’t entertain any of the big-picture questions — the records, the legacy — at least until the postseason is over.

“It’s not easy to go back-to-back 13-and-3s,” Fox said. “It’s not easy to go back-to-back 1-seeds. Obviously, everybody in our building, in our city, probably in our region, maybe in the country, was disappointed in how we finished a year ago. So hopefully that’s been a fire in the bellies of everyone in our building since that last January.”

The Broncos and many fans will be bitterly disappointed at any outcome other than a Super Bowl this year. Manning will most certainly be among them. That doesn’t change the fact that his 2013 regular season is already immortal, a story we’ll be telling a generation from now, no matter what happens next.