Road to Super Bowl XLVIII: Broncos try to finish at top of the hill

2:50 PM, Jan 29, 2014   |    comments
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( - Denver Broncos head coach John Fox said the Broncos' sojourn to the NFL's greatest stage began following what some may consider one of the franchise's most disappointing losses.

With first-year Bronco Peyton Manning leading the charge, Denver won its final 11 regular-season games in 2012 to earn the AFC's top overall seed and seemed destined for a trip to New Orleans to play in Super Bowl XLVII.

But the Broncos were dumped on their home field 38-35 by the eventual champion Baltimore Ravens and the detractors came from far and wide.

Peyton can't win the big game. The defense isn't on par with the offense. Denver made a mistake not bringing back Tim Tebow.

Okay, maybe that last one didn't center many arguments, but it was expected to be a rough offseason for the Broncos.

"There's no doubt it's been a journey. It kind of started there (with the loss to the Ravens)," Fox stated ahead of his team's trip to Super Bowl XLVIII to face the Seattle Seahawks.

"We had finished the season pretty strong a year ago. Very disappointed in the loss at home. We worked very hard in the regular season to be the number one seed. I would say that it was a fire in everybody's belly, the whole offseason as we went through preseason and, really, as we started this season. We had mostly the core of our players returning, so a lot of them had that fire in their belly."

That was pretty evident in Week 1, when Manning returned under center to silence the critics. He did so by tying an NFL record with seven touchdown passes in a 49-27 rematch win over the visiting Ravens.

It was the kick start to a historic season for the four-time MVP, with Manning setting NFL single-season records with 55 touchdown passes and 5,477 yards.

And in large part to perhaps the best quarterback of this generation, the Broncos set a new record with 606 points scored in the season and matched an NFL mark by going over 50 points in three different games this season.

"Earlier, in that first season, he was adjusting to a lot," Fox said of Manning. "He hadn't played the year before, rehabbing a pretty serious (neck) injury, just staying in shape as a veteran player. The guy might be the best time manager I've ever been around as a professional. He's earned everything that he's gotten and he's worked very, very hard."

Sisyphus was driven to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again. An NFL quarterback may go through a figurative obstacle if he tries to pilot an offense solo.

Perhaps the mythological figure could have accomplished his cursed stone- rolling task had he been allowed a little help and Manning had no problem sharing the wealth.

Armed with a strong supporting cast, the Broncos led the NFL with 457.3 yards and 37.9 points per game. That scoring pace was over a touchdown and field goal higher than the next closest teams, Chicago and New England at 27.8 PPG, and the plus-10.1 difference marked the second-biggest in NFL history behind only the 1941 Chicago Bears (plus-12.5).

All told, Denver became the first team in NFL history with five players scoring at least 10 touchdowns from scrimmage. No other previous team had more than three.

There was receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, who joined Minnesota's Cris Carter and Randy Moss as the only wide receiver tandems in league history with 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns each in consecutive seasons.

Thomas tied a franchise record with 14 receiving touchdowns on the season and finished third in the NFL with 1,430 yards; Decker was an excellent second option and stole the spotlight in Week 13 when he logged eight catches for 174 yards and a team-record four receiving touchdowns.

Slot specialist Wes Welker, one of a handful of new additions who paid an immediate return, created mismatch after mismatch and tight end Julius Thomas had plenty of room to set a club record for a tight end with 12 touchdown catches.

With all that action through the air, one tends to forget that running back Knowshon Moreno ran for over 1,000 yards and scored 10 rushing touchdowns while adding 548 yards and another three scores through the air.

There aren't any divas to be found on this offense.

"I think it is obviously a tremendously talented group," Fox said of the group. "I think having a guy directing it like we have in Peyton Manning -- it's a great bunch of guys because they are not selfish and the quarterback is the same way. Earlier in the year I was asked how I was going to keep them all happy.

"This game is about matchups. Depending on what the defense decides to take away, it gives you other options. We have seen a variety of different defensive schemes. I just think it speaks to those guys and obviously the quarterback directing it."

Manning gets a lot of credit for Denver's success, but a medical scare to Fox showed just how valuable the coach is to the recipe.

The Broncos were 7-1 and had rebounded from a loss at the Indianapolis Colts to beat the visiting Washington Redskins 45-21 on Oct. 27 before heading into their bye week. It was during this time that Fox felt dizzy while playing golf and was taken to a hospital, where it was learned he would have to undergo aortic valve replacement.

It was a situation that could have knocked the Broncos off the rails, but the club stuck together and went 3-1 under defensive coordinator and interim head coach Jack Del Rio.

"He's a great leader. I think it really showed more when he wasn't there," cornerback Champ Bailey said of Fox. "Guys understood that we've still got a job to do. He preached, even from his hospital bed, how much we needed to just hone in on what's in front of us and make sure we take care of business. Definitely don't leave any stone unturned."

Interestingly, the Broncos weren't even a first-place team when Fox was forced to take a brief departure as the Kansas City Chiefs were in the midst of a 9-0 start. However, Fox came back to an AFC West-leading squad as the Broncos ended the Chiefs' undefeated run with a 27-17 home win on Nov. 17 and bested the Chiefs again two weeks later on Decker's big night after an overtime loss to the New England Patriots.

The following week would see the Broncos clinch a playoff berth with a 51-28 rout of the Tennessee Titans, with Manning setting a team record with 39 completions while six different player scored TDs.

Perhaps sensing the inevitable, Denver dropped a 27-20 home decision the following week to San Diego, snapping a 10-game divisional winning streak with its first loss of the year at Mile High.

That game also snapped a streak of 18 straight regular-season games with at least 25 points scored -- the longest such run in NFL history -- but the Broncos were right back at it again with a 37-13 win at Houston on Dec. 22 that clinched both the AFC West and a first-round bye.

The cliche is that defense wins championships and last season's playoff loss showed that an excellent offense can only go so far.

Denver's defense yielded 24.9 points per game and 356.0 yards per contest while ranking just 27th against the pass.

But it was also a unit that did not have star linebacker Von Miller for the season's first six games due to violations of the league's substance-abuse policy and was attempting to mix in a number of new starters in defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, defensive end Shaun Phillips, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and nose tackle Sylvester Williams.

Not surprisingly, the Broncos improved late. They led the NFL with 16 takeaways in the fourth quarter and have not allowed more than 17 points in their past four games, including playoff wins over San Diego (24-17) and New England (26-16).

That comes despite Miller missing the last three games with a season-ending knee surgery.

"If you look at our defense, we've been plugging, chugging all year. And a lot of us guys weren't even on the team last year so it's just learning the defense and understanding the philosophy and understanding where people fit at and where people don't," stated Phillips. "We're just getting better and trying to hit our stride as we go on. We're trying to prepare to play our best football game on defense in the last game of the season which would be the Super Bowl obviously."

Phillips, whose 10 sacks ranked second in NFL history among pass rushers who signed with a new team in the previous offseason, is part of a defense that ranks second in the postseason in both scoring (16.5 PPG) and total defense (289.5 YPG).

The Broncos shut out the Chargers for the first three quarters to advance to the AFC Championship game, then forced Tom Brady and the Patriots offense to punt on its first three possessions en route to the offense building a 10- point lead by halftime and 20-3 edge through three quarters.

If that kind of effort continues at MetLife Stadium in the Super Bowl, the Broncos won't just roll the boulder to the top of the hill; they'll smash it into little pieces.

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