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Broncos can show they saved their best 'kicking and screaming' for last

The Broncos were 9-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points this season, they were 3-0 in overtime. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Former Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey described playoff games likes this:

"It's all about coming back from the bad stuff that happens, mistakes or whatever. Because there's going to be something -- everybody got into the playoffs for a reason, they can play -- so things happen, they make plays, so the good teams bounce right back, the teams that aren't going to be around let it get to them. I've seen both."

And while Bailey hasn't been in the Broncos' locker room for the last two seasons -- Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris Jr. now has Bailey's former locker -- he would have reason to like these Broncos. Because while they have been a quirky, sometimes inconsistent, roller coaster of a team, they have bounced back almost every time they've needed to.

They have responded to interceptions returned for touchdowns against them, recovered from missed field goals, moved past their own ill-timed fumbles and shaken off blown assignments. And in the end, nine of their 12 wins came by seven or fewer points and they routinely took games to the final minutes before things got decided.

"I don't know, guys just believe," Harris said. "We feel like we have the talent and we put in the work. But you have to believe, you don't want to be one of those teams where something happens and that's it."

And in the postseason disappointment of recent years, the Broncos haven't really bounced back from the bad stuff. There was the Baltimore Ravens' late touchdown that eventually turned into a stunning overtime loss to close out the 2012 season.

There was also the bad snap on the first play from scrimmage in what cascaded into an array of mistakes in a 35-point Super Bowl loss to the Seattle Seahawks to abruptly finish out the record-setting 2013 season. There was last January's three hours' worth of football malaise in the divisional round loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

In short, in recent years when the Broncos have stumbled in a playoff game, they have not regained their balance on the big stage. Hence, the whole "kicking and screaming" discussion this past offseason, which is also the biggest reason there was a different coaching staff in the building.

This past Sunday, the Broncos may have put their pre-playoffs, bounce-back ability to the ultimate test. They lost five turnovers to the San Diego Chargers in barely over two quarters of play, including wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders having the ball ripped out of his hands after a 46-yard gain.

"You've turned the ball over five times -- statistically, you're supposed to lose the game," Sanders said. " … It just shows how strong of a team we've got, but going down the road, we can't make those same mistakes. Hopefully we've got them all out of the way."

The Broncos were 9-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points this season, they were 3-0 in overtime and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said one of the things he's liked the most about the league's No. 1 defense is that the group plays its best in the biggest moments.

But it all gets tested now in single elimination as the Broncos will return to the practice field Thursday to get ready for their Jan. 17 playoff opener. This is the third time in the last four seasons they've done enough to get home-field advantage.

This season the Broncos have already faced two of the three potential opponents in the divisional round -- the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But if both the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans win Saturday, the Broncos would face the Texans.

This past week the coaching staff has done some work on all three of those teams.

"We obviously are familiar with a couple of the teams," said Broncos coach Gary Kubiak. " … My focus is really going to be about us. That's the thing that I want our players to stay focused on, us. We have to play a lot better than we played (Sunday). Our guys know that."