By Rich Kurtzman
It was what could be considered the greatest season in the history of the Denver Broncos. After their huge loss to the Seattle Seahawks Sunday night, the Broncos are once again Super Bowl losers. But leading up to the loss was one sensational season of which every Bronco player, personnel and fan should be proud.
Revenge Starts the Season Off Right
Denver kicked off the NFL regular season playing against last year’s Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens on Thursday night. The very same Ravens team (minus a few key defensive players including Ray Lewis and Ed Reed) that upset the Broncos during the divisional round of the playoffs just one season previous. Who could forget the infamous banners of Peyton Manning and opposing quarterback Joe Flacco that the NFL hung on the side of Sports Authority Field at Mile High – to the ire of many Broncos fans that were likely still having nightmares about Flacco’s Hail Mary burning them in the playoffs the year before. But Peyton Manning sent the Ravens home with the nightmares of a record tying seven touchdown passes and a 49-27 loss.
Weeks of Headline Games
Each and every week seemed to be a headline game for the Broncos; Week 2 was the “Manning Bowl” in which Peyton showed his little brother how to play; Week 4 they hung 52 points on the Philadelphia Eagles and the video game-like play inside Jerry Jones’ AT&T Stadium was enough to make that massive scoreboard burn a few lights out: 51-48 Broncos.
Starting the season off a perfect 6-0, Denver looked unbeatable. Until they traveled to Manning’s old home, Indianapolis, Indiana, and the Colts stomped the Broncos 39-33 on Sunday Night Football. Maybe it was the nerves of returning home that stopped Manning and Co. from delivering a win, although Manning had the best quarterback performance of the game with 386 yards and three touchdowns.
The Broncos bounced back with a big win over former head coach Mike Shanahan and the Redskins and went into their bye week at 7-1.
Coach Fox’s Health Problems
During the bye, head coach John Fox felt faint while playing golf in North Carolina and was rushed to the hospital, discovering he needed emergency heart valve surgery. While he recovered, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took the helm and Denver went 3-1 during the toughest stretch of their season.
The Broncos beat the Chargers in San Diego, handled the Chiefs at home, lost to the Patriots in overtime and then beat the Chiefs in Kansas City to basically clinch the AFC West.
In Week 15, San Diego handed the seemingly complacent Broncos their third and final loss of the regular season; Denver finished 13-3, the AFC’s number one seed.
A Strong Playoff Performance
After their first round bye, it was the Chargers who came to the Mile High City seeking another win. This time, Denver was ready for their rushing attack and forced San Diego to ditch their game plan in the second half after taking a 17-0 lead through three quarters. While the Chargers charged back in the fourth following cornerback Chris Harris’ injury, the Broncos won 24-17 and went onto the AFC Championship.
There it was Brady vs. Manning XV but Manning had Tom Brady’s number this day. The Broncos slowed down their usual fast-scoring offense into a methodical march, putting together the longest set of drives in terms time of possession this season against the Patriots, limiting Brady’s chances at scoring. Brady was off, overthrowing receivers, but Manning was on, throwing for 400 yards and two scores.
Through two playoff games, the Broncos didn’t let Manning get sacked once, they controlled the clock and played physical football.
Then came the Super Bowl.
It All Falls Down
The timing was off for the Broncos offense from the very first snap. As Manny Ramirez’s snap sailed over Manning’s head and into the end zone, giving the Seattle Seahawks a safety, hopes of winning the huge game floated away with it. Soon the Seahawks were up 8-0, following Manning’s first interception; a poorly thrown pass that was two yards too tall for six-foot-four tight end Julius Thomas. The pass went directly into the awaiting arms of safety Kam Chancellor.
On Manning’s second interception, Orlando Franklin was overpowered by defensive end Cliff Avril, hitting the quarterback’s right arm as he released the football; it hung in the air and was nabbed by linebacker Malcolm Smith and returned for a touchdown. The deficit climbed to 29-0 and the game was essentially sealed when Percy Harvin took the second half’s opening kickoff to the house.
The Broncos were dominated in all three phases of the game; their offense couldn’t do what it did all season long – save one scoring drive – and lost 43-8.
Injuries Hurt the Team
Throughout the season, the Broncos lost starter after starter to injury. Some returned and some did not. Notable starters that went on the IR include: OT Ryan Clady, DE Derek Wolfe, DT Terrance Knighton CB Chris Harris, CB Champ Bailey, S Rahim Moore and LB Von Miller. Despite setbacks caused by injuries the Broncos were able to make it back to the Super Bowl due to all the tremendous talent collected by John Elway and the front office.
This winning season is a testament to Elway’s vision as a front office leader as much as it is to Manning and the offense’s record-breaking year.
And, as they say, there’s always next year.
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Rich Kurtzman is a Denver native, Colorado State University alumnus, sports nerd, athletics enthusiast, and competition junkie. Currently writing for a multitude of websites while working on books, one on the history of the Denver Broncos and Mile High Stadium. Rich is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.