ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- They are the hottest team remaining in the AFC's postseason field. They are confident, they say they have been in playoff mode for over a month, they have momentum, and they are ... not the Denver Broncos.
When the Broncos and San Diego Chargers face off Sunday in Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Denver will carry the league's highest-scoring offense into the game as the AFC's top seed, fresh off a playoff bye.
But the Chargers will arrive having won their final four games of the regular season -- five of the last six -- to make the postseason field. They then upset the Cincinnati Bengals in Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. The only longer winning streak underway in the league is San Francisco's seven-game span that includes last weekend's road victory against the Green Bay Packers.
As momentum has repeatedly trumped rest in the NFL's tournament recently, the Broncos find themselves trying to buck the trend on the AFC side of the Super Bowl bracket. Since 1990 -- the first year of the 12-team format -- the No. 1 seeds in the NFC are 19-4 in divisional round games while the AFC's top seeds are just 13-10.
It's all why, over the past two weeks, the Broncos have spent a lot of time pushing the idea, from the top down, that the postseason is a new start. As wide receiver Eric Decker put it Wednesday, "The past is the past. Stats, they don't matter anymore. Records, they don't matter anymore. It's a tournament. It's a one-game, win-or-go-home type of mentality."
The Broncos used their bye week -- coach John Fox called it a "get better week" -- in large part to rest the team. They had plenty of meeting time but kept the on-field work to two practices. And at the moment, the Broncos, who have repeated as the AFC's top seed with their second consecutive 13-3 record, see themselves as the team with the momentum that comes with a season like that.
"We won 13 games this year, so I don't know what you consider us if you consider them a hot team," said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "We went on our streaks here and there, we had our bumps in the road, and I think that's made us a better team. We faced a lot of adversity this year, and now it's time to put up or shut up. All of the injuries and guys not playing or things like that -- no more excuses.”
Also working in the Broncos' favor, at least many of the players say, is San Diego's Dec. 12 win in Denver. The 27-20 Chargers victory, after the Broncos did not handle a short week very well leading up to the Thursday night affair, has wrung out every last possibility the Broncos would get too comfortable this week.
"They kind of put it on us last time," Decker said.
There is also that not-so-small matter of last January's double-overtime loss to the Ravens that ended the Broncos' postseason run. That game has been a reminder for almost every Broncos team activity since.
"I would say that there's a lot more confidence in the locker room this year than last year," Decker said. "Last year, we went on a little run there, and I don't know if we got comfortable but we didn't finish. We were hungry this year as far as coming into the offseason, coming into training camp making sure that, when we go out and play, we make sure we finish everything we do."
"We just need to have a good week of preparation," said tight end Jacob Tamme. "… And go out there Sunday and, like I said, let it loose, play aggressive."