DENVER -- In 2013, the Denver Broncos and their pedal-to-the-metal passing game scored more points than any team in league history. In that season, Peyton Manning threw 55 touchdown passes, more than any quarterback had thrown in any season before or since.
Fast forward to the 2015 Broncos, one game away from a Super Bowl after their 23-16 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. This version of the Broncos is conducting its business at the other end of the football spectrum. The Broncos live, breathe and continue to be powered by their opportunistic, game-snatching defense.
Even Manning knows it and appreciates it.
"Our defense has been outstanding all season," Manning said. "They have led us to this point, let’s make that clear. Different guys stepped up at different times all season. I could go on and on. Each game, key defensive players stepped it up. But you have to be a good team to win these playoff games and you have to win as a team."
The trek began when David Bruton Jr. broke up a Joe Flacco pass that Darian Stewart intercepted in the Broncos’ end zone to seal a win against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 1. There was Brandon Marshall's strip of Jamaal Charles in Week 2, a fumble Bradley Roby returned for a touchdown in the closing seconds of a tie game.
In the weeks that followed, there was Chris Harris Jr. here, Aqib Talib there, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Danny Trevathan and the rest, name after name, player after player making the difference. When games have been in the balance, when the Broncos have needed something, anything, to change things, it has largely been the team’s defense that has turned the tide.
They've been dominant -- holding Aaron Rodgers to 77 yards passing on Nov. 1 -- but most of all, they’ve routinely done it when they've been in trouble.
And on Sunday, the Broncos were in potential one-and-done trouble.
"But we just came out and do what we do, it’s nothing new now," Miller said Sunday. "This year, we handled adversity like I’ve never handled it before, I’ve never been on a team that handles adversity so well."
The Broncos were leading Steelers 13-12 in the fourth quarter, with the Broncos’ streak of playoff possessions without a touchdown having reached 22. The Steelers were driving, at the Broncos’ 34-yard line and threatening to close the deal. But on second-and-4, Steelers running back Fitzgerald Toussaint went over left tackle for 3 yards. Roby saw his chance and popped the ball loose.
"I saw it right there and just hit it," Roby said. "You don’t know if it’s going to come you when you do that, but I saw it a little away from his body, so I just went for it."
The ball hit the ground, and Ware pounced on it. The Broncos took over on their own 35-yard line and proceeded to put together their only touchdown drive of the game (13 plays, 65 yards) for the game winner.
Of the Broncos' 17 games this season, 13 were decided by seven or fewer points. They are 10-3 in those games.
"It helps playing a lot of close games during the course of a season, starting with the very first one against Baltimore," Manning said. "That was a dogfight, a grinder and went down to the last drive. If you can have a lot of those games and win those games, it gives you a lot of confidence."
Manning understands, maybe more than ever, that he is backed by perhaps the best defense he has had. Sunday, Manning was interception free for the first time in any of his starts this season, and the Broncos moved on.
"[Manning] got them into some checks based on what we were doing and they were able to hit us in some of the blitzes we went in and out of," Steelers linebacker James Harrison said. "It’s just an above the neck game, he’s seen it all, heard it all. He was able to go out there and do what was necessary for that team to win."
Or as Manning put it, in the words the Broncos now live by: "It’s playoff football."