ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Maybe the Denver Broncos needed last year's playoff failure. Perhaps someday they can look back on it as the day they started this season's championship run.
The way the Broncos stormed the AFC West in 2012 was surprising, perhaps even to them. The Ravens came into Denver and pulled off the shocking double-overtime upset in last year's playoffs, and that disappointment is still lingering as the Broncos get ready to face San Diego in the playoffs on Sunday.
"Last year we went on a little run there and I don’t know if we got comfortable but we didn’t finish," receiver Eric Decker said. "We were hungry this year as far as coming into the offseason, coming into training camp making sure that when we go out and play we make sure we finish everything we do."
The Broncos could have decided to completely forget about that Ravens loss, but they went the other way.
"We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squads, whatever it may be," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "We’ve used it on the practice field. I don’t think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before."
The Broncos have as good of a chance as anyone to win the Super Bowl this season. The offense became the first in NFL history to score 600 points in a season. They're the AFC's No. 1 seed and 10-point favorites over the Chargers this week. They're obviously focused, too.
Yet there's a lot of nerves in Colorado. Broncos fans have been burned before. The franchise hasn't had a lot of playoff success this century. Denver has just two playoff wins since Super Bowl XXXIII in January of 1999, and one was a Tim Tebow-fueled victory over the Steelers that still doesn't seem real. That's a lot of time to pass without much playoff success, and last year's Ravens upset was a real kick to the gut.
And there's no getting around the past playoff failures by Manning.
Fair or not, his 9-11 playoff record follows everything he does. Eight times he has been one-and-done in the playoffs, including last year. Just imagine the dread in Denver and the criticism of Manning if the Broncos lose this week.
There's a ton of pressure on Manning to play well, although he said he doesn't feel it and has never played with extra pressure on himself in other playoff games either.
"That’s not how I feel," Manning said. "I guess everybody has a different theory or analysis. A lot of you people (in the media) weren’t even probably working since I’ve been playing in the playoffs.
"I don’t believe that to be true. I’ve always enjoyed it and I felt fortunate to be in every opportunity when you get a chance to play in the postseason."
The other Broncos are too focused on their own jobs to worry much about Manning's legacy and how this game will fit into it, but they're aware. It's hard to get away from it considering it's a constant addendum to any conversation about Manning's career, or even his record 2013 season.
The Broncos realize that they can help turn that narrative around.
"That’s something – when you’re great, they’re going to find something to nitpick at you," linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "He can’t be perfect. If he was perfect, he would win every single game and win every single Super Bowl. But no one is perfect. All he can do is go out there and do his job. And we’re going to do our part to try to help the way we can on our side of the ball."
Perhaps it's fitting the Broncos, who are motivated by failures of the past, play the Chargers this week. San Diego was the only team to win at Denver all season, a 27-20 victory on Dec. 12. San Diego did a masterful job of controlling the clock with its running game (it ran the ball very well in last week's playoff win at Cincinnati too) and shortened the game against the Broncos' offense.
That's not the type of game the fast-break Broncos really want to play, but like the Ravens' playoff loss from a year ago, maybe they have learned from it.
"It’s win or go home for us and last time we played these guys we didn’t have the result we wanted," Decker said. "I thought that was a good wake-up game for us."
There's a lot of pressure on these Broncos, and it has been noticeable ever since the Ravens won at Denver last season. But the failures, whether it's Denver's shocking playoff loss last season or all of the disappointments in Manning's postseason career, can be forgotten about with three more wins.
"This is the 2013 season, 2014 postseason, and it’s its own chapter," Manning said. "We’re looking forward to hopefully writing it for a number of more weeks."
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