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With Mile-High Expectations, Denver Is Ready to Ascend

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Julius Thomas and Peyton Manning had a hand in two key third-down conversions that lifted the Denver Broncos into the AFC Championship Game. Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images
Julius Thomas and Peyton Manning had a hand in two key third-down conversions that lifted the Denver Broncos into the AFC Championship Game. Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Up by a touchdown, the Denver Broncos take the field with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter. All that stands between them and an AFC Championship matchup against the New England Patriots is one first down. Peyton Manning, one of the all-time greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, calls for the snap — he hands off to Ronnie Hillman for a two-yard gain.

Second down and eight.

Manning gets the ball — hands off to Hillman for a one-yard gain.

Third and long. Time to put it on Peyton. The Denver fans are confident in their team’s savior to do what he’s done all season, leading them to a league-best record and first-round playoff bye. With the game on the line, Manning takes the snap — and hands off to Hillman for no gain.

Fourth and long. Punt.

Following an incredible Hail Mary touchdown reception to tie the game at 35, Denver gets the ball back with 31 seconds and two timeouts remaining. One last chance for Peyton Manning to run his historic no-huddle, hurry-up offense and execute a surgical game-winning drive. Manning takes the snap — and kneels.

End of regulation.

Denver goes on to lose the game in double overtime, eliminating them from the playoffs.

Heading into last year’s playoffs, Denver players and fans alike were reveling in their season-long dominance after the somewhat unexpected free-agency acquisition of Manning, who took the Broncos to heights they hadn’t experienced since the glory days of John Elway. In its divisional round game against the Baltimore Ravens, Denver executed a conservative game plan that, with victory nearly in its grasp, entrusted an undersized and unproven rookie running back to carry the Broncos across the finish line rather than their future Hall of Fame leader. As documented above, this presumably “safe” offensive strategy failed, and while their defense did not do the Broncos any favors on the ensuing Baltimore possession, the crushing loss left many scratching their heads and asking why Manning was not given the reins when it mattered most.

Facing an all-too-familiar scenario in the final minutes against the San Diego Chargers this past weekend, the Broncos were eager to show that they were not the same team that crumbled under the pressure in overtime the year before. With the Broncos needing to convert two third-and-longs on their potentially game-winning drive, Peyton hit tight end Julius Thomas on both passes, including a clutch third-and-17 completion that had a formerly uproarious home crowd holding its collective breath. This time, when Peyton took a knee to let the clock expire, it was in victory formation.

Coming out aggressively on both sides of the ball, Denver played on Sunday like a team with something to prove. The Broncos defense knew San Diego wanted to come out with a clock-killing, run-heavy game plan as the Chargers did in their victory at Denver last month. The Broncos responded to this blueprint with one of their most ferocious defensive efforts of the year, sacking Philip Rivers twice and nearly intercepting him on the Chargers’ first drive of the game. Rivers was clearly caught off-guard by the duress he was immediately put under, and this set the tone for the rest of the game. On the ensuing possession, Manning appeared poised and laser-focused, executing a surgical 86-yard scoring drive that featured completions to four different receivers and drained nearly seven minutes.

Denver seemed to find a new gear in this game. Notwithstanding two fluky first-half turnovers that likely prevented an insurmountable Denver lead, the Broncos unleashed an offensive and defensive onslaught that left San Diego helpless to combat. Thinned-out by injuries throughout the season, a fired-up front seven gave Rivers more than he could handle. Before cornerback Chris Harris’ devastating ACL tear in the third quarter, the Denver defensive backs kept Rivers from establishing any kind of rhythm with his receivers. And while the loss of Harris painfully exposed an already-thin secondary that gave up consecutive fourth-quarter touchdown receptions to rookie phenom Keenan Allen, Denver should be encouraged by its DBs’ performance.

Though the final score does not suggest that Denver routed San Diego in embarrassing fashion, the Broncos team that longtime fans watched this past weekend showed possibly the most fight that they’ve seen since the team last won the Super Bowl 15 years ago. Denver played tough in all three phases and exhibited an urgency and aggression that has not typically characterized this team in the post-Elway era. Most importantly, when the game needed to be put away, the Broncos employed a “play-to-win” strategy, rightfully putting the weight of enormous expectations upon Manning’s shoulders. And while this week pits Denver against an always dangerous Patriots team, it appears that, unlike last year, the Broncos are ready for the challenge.