JERSEY CITY, N.J. — For the Denver Broncos, one of the defining moments on their impressive road to Super XLVIII came the season before. It was a game most fans around the league remember, particularly for a play impossible to forget.
The Broncos were seemingly counting down the final seconds of an AFC divisional round win against Baltimore, with a seven-point lead at home and less than a minute to go.
The Ravens had the ball on their own 30-yard line with no timeouts, and in desperation, quarterback Joe Flacco heaved essentially a last-chance, Hail Mary pass into the cold, thin Denver air. Broncos safety Rahim Moore badly misplayed the toss, however, which resulted in a 70-yard, tying touchdown with 31 seconds left.
Baltimore, after one of the most memorable plays in NFL playoff history, went on to win in double overtime and, eventually, win the Super Bowl as well.
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The Broncos ended the season stunned, devastated.
“There is no doubt it has been a journey; it kind of started there,” coach John Fox said ahead of Sunday’s championship. “We had finished the season pretty strong a year ago (and we were) very disappointed in the loss at home. … I would say that it was a fire in everybody’s belly.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking there is only one team in the Super Bowl with a chip on its shoulder. The Seahawks might thrive with such an attitude, but the Broncos, too, have something to prove — that two seasons of greatness won’t come and go without a ring.
That motivation has carried throughout.
“I can’t speak for everybody else; I just know for myself, it bothered me,” said offensive coordinator Adam Gase of the loss. “It made me really want to get back.”
Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey said there was a different sense of urgency when organized team activities began. Receiver Eric Decker said the team embraced a mentality — “finish everything we do” — whether it was a practice or even just a workout.
Bailey added: “You could tell that everybody was a little more focused than the year before. That’s really what you want going in to workouts. You want everybody on the same page from Day 1. Here is our finished product: we’re in the Super Bowl, just because guys really honed in on what they had to do.”
As fate would have it, or perhaps just some crafty NFL scheduling, the Broncos opened the 2013 regular season at home against the Ravens in a stand-alone Thursday night game on national television.
The result? Denver dominance. Peyton Manning threw for 462 yards and a league record-tying seven touchdowns in a resounding 49-27 victory.
If the playoff defeat was a starting point, Week 1 was a launching point.
“It was a heck of an opening night,” Manning said. “Any time you get to play the defending Super Bowl champs, a team that put you out of the playoffs the year before, there was no question our team was motivated. It was kind of our night that night.
“It gave me confidence and I know it gave those guys confidence, as well — you can do it on a big stage.”
The Broncos’ offense did it on every stage, it seems, setting NFL marks with 606 points (37.9 per game) and 76 touchdowns this season. Manning’s season was also historic, setting league records with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball, Denver’s defense is peaking at just the right time, allowing an average of 15 points in the past four games, including playoff wins against San Diego and New England.
But it is no secret most of the attention Sunday will fall solely on Manning, as questions surrounding his legacy are sure to be raised, win or lose. The 37-year-old won his fifth MVP award but has won just one Super Bowl.
Another letdown would surely rest on Manning’s shoulders, even if he has deflected credit in getting this far.
“The offense, the defense and even the special teams have played well together at the same time these past two postseason games,” Manning said. “That is certainly what we’d like to occur on Sunday. The only way to win a world championship is if all three phases are playing at a high level.”
The fire has been burning for almost 13 months.
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