ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Almost from the moment the Denver Broncos gathered for their first offseason workout in April, they said they had learned their lesson. The Broncos said they understood the opportunity left behind last January in a 24-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
“Those games get you through the offseason stuff, your workouts and all that,’’ Broncos linebacker Von Miller said. “Guys remember what happened, no doubt, but this was a new season, a new locker room, new coaches. This team can do its own thing.’’
That it can. The Broncos have six days until they face the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC divisional round at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
They arrive in the divisional round in much the same fashion as a year ago. They are a 12-win team that won its division to earn a coveted week off. They said all the right things about what they learned from playoff disappointment.
In each of the past four seasons, the Broncos have won at least 12 games and a division title. Three times in the past three seasons, they have also been bounced from the playoffs because they didn’t play their best in the biggest moments.
That includes two one-and-done appearances in the divisional round: an overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens to close the 2012 season and January’s football sleepwalk against the Colts, in which the Broncos’ only touchdown came on their opening drive. Throw a 35-point Super Bowl loss on the pile -- the Broncos never matched the Seattle Seahawks’ drive or focus during the week or in the game -- and that is quite the resume of lackluster performances in win-or-go-home scenarios.
“You have to be all in,’’ Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall said. “For these few weeks, or whatever the case may be, and the days leading up to it, you have to be all in. I think you have to sacrifice whatever time you have and anything that you may want to do or time that you may have -- the free time -- you have to apply it towards football to be able to try and get that ring. I think it’s so huge. Not many players can say, ‘I have a Super Bowl ring.'"
The Broncos have said these things before, but this time, their offseason work centered on trying to change the look of their final game of the season.
That’s why coach John Fox and the team “mutually parted ways’’ the day after the loss to the Colts. It’s why executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway hired his former football roommate, his former offensive coordinator and long-time friend Gary Kubiak as coach. Elway said Kubiak “knows what it takes." Kubiak has three Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach: one with the San Francisco 49ers and two with the Broncos.
That's why, after a question about why he would replace a coach such as Fox, who had won four consecutive division titles, Elway used the sum-it-up phrase “kicking and screaming.’’ Losing the last game of the season shouldn’t look inevitable during that game. That emotional checkout shouldn’t happen.
Linebacker Danny Trevathan, who was the Broncos' leading tackler, was not on the field for last season's loss because he was on injured reserve. He believes he and the rest of the Broncos learned from the Super Bowl blowout and last season's stumble.
“Right now, I just feel like I can handle it a little bit more,’’ Trevathan said. “It’s just a whole bunch of things that add up to make me a better person -- calm and knowing how to handle this thing. Anybody that comes through here is going to have a problem.”
The Broncos have wrestled wins out of difficult circumstances for much of this season. They defeated five teams who made this year’s playoff field, went 9-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points and won three times in overtime. Kubiak was asked this past week what he believes is the difference between a team that doesn’t make the most of the moment and one that does.
“Leadership. To me, it’s about leadership," he said. "We’ve got a lot of guys on this football team that have been in a lot of playoff games. They know and they understand what’s at stake.
"Also, I think, staying in the moment. People want to talk about, 'What if this, what if that?' You can’t get -- you stay in the moment of your practice. Let’s work good, let’s go do the things we do best and get ready to play, understanding that the season is one week long if you don’t take care of your business.’’