It’s been nearly eight months since, but I still cringe when hearing the names Joe Flacco, Jacoby Jones or Rahim Moore. The pain from the Mile High Meltdown last January may last forever in Colorado, which is why a Super Bowl win for the Broncos this year is almost required.
John Elway, vice president of football operations, knows the heartbreak that comes with a home loss in the playoffs to an inferior team. The 1996-97 Broncos finished 13-3 and wrapped up the division fairly early in December, similar to the 2012-13 Broncos.
All signs pointed to a Super Bowl, until the Mark Brunell-led Jacksonville Jaguars sucked the life out of Mike Shanahan’s team and beat the Broncos on their home field. All the good feelings from being the best regular season team were gone, just like that.
Here’s the good news that came out of that playoff loss to the Jags. Elway and company hoisted the Lombardi trophy the next two seasons, beating the Packers in an underdog role for Super Bowl XXXII and blowing out the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Looking at the schedule, there are several games worth circling. There is none bigger than Opening Night next Thursday, which pins a rematch with the Ravens and former Bronco Elvis Dumervil. The following week is another chapter of the Manning Bowl, as Peyton and Eli match up in East Rutherford.
For the first time, Manning travels back to Indianapolis to play his former team Oct. 20 on national TV. Mike Shanahan returns to Denver with his Redskins and Robert Griffin III one week later.
And who can forget what should be another slugfest as Tom Brady and the Wes Welker-less Patriots host Manning and the Broncos Nov. 24 for another nationally televised game. The regular season concludes with a trip to Oakland Dec. 29.
The Broncos could win 13 games once again this season. But there isn’t a trophy for having the best record in the regular season.
Would John Fox’s group have beaten the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last season and advanced to the Super Bowl? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Elway understands the door for Manning and Champ Bailey is closing.
That explains bringing Welker and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Denver on short-term deals. The players know the goal for this season. They aren’t hiding from the fact that they were favored to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl by Las Vegas.
Here are five things the orange and blue must do to remain in Super Bowl contention.
Do the little things well. Although the preseason doesn’t mean much, it showed the Broncos can be careless with the ball and be their own worst enemy. Tackling was also a concern at times.
Be dealt some adversity and overcome it. The Broncos had very few obstacles to deal with last season. When the Flacco-to-Jones touchdown tied the playoff game, everyone looked defeated. The Von Miller suspension coupled with an unlikely loss or two during the regular season might be the best thing for the team come playoff time.
Maintain a consistent running game. There may not be a 1,000-yard rusher on this roster, which is fine. But the three-headed attack of Montee Ball, Ronnie Hillman and Knowshon Moreno must provide some balance for Manning.
Find a playmaker on defense to replace Dumervil. The offense may put up 30-plus points ten or more times this season. But there will be games where a defensive player will have to make a play, maybe even during the playoffs. Whether it is newly acquired Shaun Phillips, Derek Wolfe or training camp darling Duke Ihenacho, somebody has to pick up the slack, at least until Miller comes back in October.
Keep number 18 upright. Knock on wood, but without PFM, this is a 7-9 football team. Elway paid Louis Vasquez big money to keep the interior line intact and gave left tackle Ryan Clady a huge contract extension to protect Manning’s blindside. But the running backs also have a huge responsibility of picking up blitzes on passing downs.
There is an obvious impatience in Broncos Country for this team to be in the Super Bowl in February. Time is running out.
To steal part of Manning’s snap cadence, “hurry, hurry!”