Denver Broncos: Bill Belichick

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In the middle of a career-changing losing streak, as he sought to pull the 2013 Houston Texans out of the rut they had fallen into and find the unturned stone that would make the difference, Gary Kubiak said he tried to do too much.

That he saw his limit but went right on by.

"That was a scary time," Kubiak said this week. "... I probably ran myself into the ground a little bit. I think I learned a lot from that."

[+] EnlargeGary Kubiak
Chuck Coo/USA TODAY SportsNew Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak said he learned to delegate better in his season with the Ravens after suffering a health scare with the Texans.
The circled date will always be Nov. 3, 2013, against the Indianapolis Colts, when Kubiak, in his eighth season as the Texans' coach, collapsed on the field just before halftime of what would become the team's sixth consecutive loss in a streak that reached 14 by season's end.

Doctors called it a transient ischemic attack, or TIA. It happens if blood flow to the brain is briefly interrupted, often by a blood clot or narrowed blood vessels. It is often referred to as a "ministroke," because symptoms last only a few minutes or a few hours with no permanent brain damage.

TIAs can be a sign that a person is at higher risk for a stroke in the future. But just over 14 months since that episode, Kubiak said he's healthy and more than physically and mentally ready to be the 15th head coach in Denver Broncos history.

Kubiak returned in '13 to finish out the season but was fired after 13 games with the Texans at 2-11. He was the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator this season.

"I'm doing great, I'm feeling fine," Kubiak said. "Hopefully I look OK. But I'm doing fine, I worked through that. I think it's like anything else, you're giving something everything you have and that was a tough season, tough situation and I was going to keep swinging. Like I said, I probably just ran myself down a little bit too much, but I've come back from it. Everybody tells me I'm doing just fine. I took a big physical this past week, so I'm ready to go. I'm good."

John Elway, the Broncos' executive vice president of football operations/general manager, said he discussed the topic of health with his new coach.

"I think Gary, we talked about it and he said it, he said it was a good lesson for him," Elway said. "I think a lot of times, obviously my dad [Jack] was a coach and he didn't take great care of himself, so we had talked about that before. And I think, as Gary said, it was a good thing for him, because now he had to be more conscious of his health and how he was treating his body and the things he was working on."

It can be part of the learning curve on the job, surrounding yourself with people you're willing to delegate to in a profession filled with hands-on, Type A personalities. It's a profession where getting fired is part of a longer path than perhaps the coaches anticipate when they first land a top job in the league. After all, the two head coaches in the Super Bowl were both fired in their first tries -- Bill Belichick by the Cleveland Browns and Pete Carroll by the New England Patriots.

Kubiak said that in retrospect, he believes he was not willing to involve the people around him with the Texans enough in his attempts to try to correct a season that was off the rails. He added that his season with the Ravens will also have a lasting impact in how he takes on the job with the Broncos.

"Then I really can't explain the value of last year for me as a coach, being around [Ravens coach] John Harbaugh, being around that organization, being around [general manager] Ozzie Newsome, watching them go about their business, how they go about being successful week in and week out," Kubiak said. "I take all that with me as I move forward, and I know I'm a lot better coach now than I was when I left. A lot more experience. It still gets back to the people you surround yourself with. I think all coaches are only as good as the players they have and coaches they've got working with them. We'll have a great crew doing that, I promise you."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos still find themselves chasing the New England Patriots in the race for home-field advantage in the AFC, so it was fitting quarterback Peyton Manning drop a smattering of references to Patriots coach Bill Belichick following Thursday’s practice.

Oh, not blatant, not by name, but three times Manning offered some variation of “we’re on to Cincinnati’’ in answers about various topics. Earlier this season, the day after the Patriots’ 41-14 Sept. 29 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Belichick offered some variation of “we’re on to Cincinnati’’ five times when asked questions about the team.

Thursday, Manning sprinkled three such references within a 7-minute, 10-second interview session.

On Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton saying following Sunday’s win in San Diego the Broncos would win the Super Bowl, Manning said; “I think Terrance has got a lot of confidence, I think that’s a good quality about him. As far as me though, I’m on to Cincinnati.’’

On the prospect of potentially resting players in the season's final week since the Broncos have clinched their fourth consecutive AFC West title, Manning said;

“We’re full speed ahead trying to win this game,’’ Manning said. “That is really all we’re thinking about … you want to keep a winning streak going if you can and keep some momentum … playing a team that, like I said, has a ton on the line and is right in the thick of the playoffs and the division. We’re on to Cincinnati.’’

And as he was about to wrap up the session, Manning was asked if he could speak to how difficult it is for a player to play in a game when sick, as he did, with flu-like symptoms in San Diego.

“No, I can’t. I couldn’t do that," Manning said. "I think I’m past talking about it. So, we’re on to Cincinnati.’’

The Broncos and Patriots are each 11-3, but New England owns the playoff tiebreaker as a result of the 43-21 victory over the Broncos Nov. 2 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. The Broncos’ remaining two regular-season games are against the Bengals and the Oakland Raiders.

The Patriots face the New York Jets Sunday and close out the regular season against the Buffalo Bills.

Some pre-game Broncos snacks

November, 2, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Some pre-game Denver Broncos nuggets from Gillette Stadium:
  • Stadium workers spent about just more than an hour clearing the snow off the playing field Sunday. They used tractors, a collection of workers with shovels and even a worker or four manning a leaf blower to push some of the larger snow pockets off the FieldTurf surface.
  • While there have been many times early arrivals were greeted to a tarp covering the playing field inside Gillette, that was not case Sunday. There was no tarp covering the field, though forecasts Friday and Saturday said snow was a possibility. Then again, a home-field advantage is a home-field advantage and most teams would be looking to slow down the Broncos' offense.
  • Three hours before kickoff and one Broncos player was going through the paces. Rain or shine or snow, quarterback Zac Dysert always does his game-day work with quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. Knapp routinely puts Dysert through a series of scenarios in terms of coverages. Dysert, as is usually the case, was the only practice squad player who made the trip.
  • The expectation is that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick will use a variety of defensive personnel, especially on the defensive line, to try to slow down the Broncos’ offense. Look for the Broncos, when they step up the pace, to try to limit the Patriots' ability to substitute at times.
  • With one side of Gillette Stadium being open, it’s far more difficult to throw the ball into the open side. The Broncos, like many who play here on less-than-favorable days, may be in a position to call the game different on offense as they play into the open side as opposed to when the offense is moving away from the open side. The Broncos need a big day from running backs Ronnie Hillman, Juwan Thompson and perhaps even the No. 3, C.J. Anderson.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- In in the end, it’s the minds that matter.

Bill Belichick and Peyton Manning. Again.

Sunday will be the 23rd time, as either a head coach or defensive coordinator, Belichick has faced Manning. The 23rd time the matchup coach, the guy who has been more successful than most at taking away what you do best, has faced the matchup quarterback.

Former Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley has always said Manning works every play to the open guy. He doesn’t play favorites, that "if you’re the matchup, the open guy, you get the ball."

[+] EnlargeBill Belichick and Peyton Manning
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBill Belichick said this week that Peyton Manning was the best quarterback he has ever faced as a coach.
Manning was asked this week if he thought deep down Belichick, who is 12-10 when facing Manning as a coordinator or head coach, might be tired of facing Manning after all these years.

"I don’t know. I can’t speak for that, but somebody was asking me if I ever see the schedule come out and say, 'boy, I wish we didn’t have to play them again,' but in reality they’re always winning the division, they’re always there, and so ... you’re going to play them," Manning said. "... The main reason we’ve played them so many times is because we’ve won the division the year before also. So it’s a challenging consequence of being a good team the year before, that’s what you want. You want to win the division, it gives you the chance to get in the playoffs, gives you the chance to win a world championship. That’s kind of your goal every year."

Through the years, Belichick, who is 10-5 against Manning with Tom Brady as his starting quarterback, has routinely chosen coverage over pressure with Manning. The Patriots have often filled the passing lanes with defenders dropping into coverage and hoped a four-, three- or sometimes even a two-man rush on a smattering of snaps can get there if Manning has to consistently go deeper into his progressions.

Last November, on a cold blustery night in Foxborough, Mass., Manning threw for 150 yards -- his lowest output of his record-setting 2013 season -- and was sacked twice as the Broncos chose to run the ball plenty against defensive sets with so many defenders off the line of scrimmage and in coverage. The Broncos ran for 280 yards, 224 of those from Knowshon Moreno. But in the end the Broncos could not protect a 24-0 lead, losing 34-31 in overtime.

Manning sees the same attention to detail in the Patriots' defense this time around, even with the Patriots missing Pro Bowl linebacker Jerod Mayo, who is now on injured reserve with a right knee injury suffered during an Oct. 12 victory in Buffalo. New England also played this past Sunday’s win against the Chicago Bears without defensive lineman Chandler Jones, who suffered a hip injury in the Patriots' Oct. 16 win against the New York Jets.

"That’s why Bill’s been so successful is they’ve done a tremendous job," Manning said. "They’ve taken a 'next-man-up' philosophy. They’ve lost some key components to their defense and plugged guys in and done a terrific job. They’re not giving up explosive plays. They’re high both in scoring offense and scoring defense, and part of that is pass rush. It’s just pass defense as a whole."

For Manning, it always means patience is a key. Belichick tends to try to take away a quarterback’s favorite routes, favorite receivers, and make him put the ball into the hands of others. That means the Patriots will try to limit the Broncos’ bread-and-butter crossing routes with plenty of attention given to receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas.

The make-somebody-else-beat-you philosophy usually makes someone else in the offense make the plays that make the difference. Last season it was Moreno, with a career night, who almost pushed the Broncos over the top.

In the AFC Championship Game, in Denver, this past January, the Patriots' secondary, especially after Aqib Talib left the game, wasn’t up to the challenge as Manning remained on schedule in his reads and finished with 400 yards passing, with 134 of those going to Demaryius Thomas. The Broncos believe they have enough depth, with Wes Welker and Emmanuel Sanders capable of 100-yard games -- Sanders has two this season, to go with a three-touchdown game -- if that's what it takes to end the Patriots long home winning streak (33 regular-season games in a row) against AFC opponents.

"When you’ve got Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, two first-ballot Hall of Famers in my eyes, those guys are definitely winners and going at home with the crowd and the environment, it’s definitely a tough place to play," said Sanders. "But at the same time, we’ve got to go out there. We’ve got to handle business. We’ve got to go out there and execute at a high level, we’ve got to be assignment-detailed, we’ve got to be physical."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The 100-yard interception return against the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional round game following the 2005 season is a play Champ Bailey said people still ask him about.

Bailey
The Patriots were the defending Super Bowl champs, Bailey was coming off a eight-interception regular season and the touchdown that followed the interception one play later essentially closed the deal for the Broncos as they moved on to the AFC Championship Game.

“So, I can see why people talk about it with me," Bailey said this week.

Wednesday, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick recalled Bailey’s career. Bailey formally announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday.

“Champ was great and unique in the fact he could match up with pretty much anybody -– fast guys, quick guys, big guys, physical receivers," Belichick said. “He had the skill set, anticipation and awareness to play inside in the slot and could play outside on the perimeter. Really a complete player that matched up well against pretty much whoever he covered."

Bailey had two career interceptions – one in the regular season to go with the one in the playoffs – against Belichick-coached teams.
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- A little more than two years later, the Broncos still remember the night the New England Patriots pushed the accelerator to the floor and ran all over Denver's defensive game plan.

In Week 5 of the 2012 season, the Patriots' offense knocked down some energy drinks with a Cocoa Puffs chaser during a 31-21 victory against the Broncos. Before it was the NFL norm, the Patriots trotted out one-word plays and ran 89 plays on a Broncos defense still getting its bearings under new defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio.

The Patriots rushed for a game-crushing 251 yards -- 151 of those from Stevan Ridley -- and three touchdowns to go with 223 yards passing and another touchdown from Tom Brady. And they did it at a pace the Broncos had not really seen before.

[+] EnlargeBrady/Manning
Stew Milne/USA TODAY SportsDuring their 2012 meeting, the Patriots and Tom Brady beat Peyton Manning and the Broncos by running an up-tempo offense.
"Oh yeah, that was my first year," said cornerback Chris Harris. "We'll see that for sure. [You have] to get off the field on time. They get a first down, it's ‘bam, let's hurry it up.' And they just go faster and faster."

The Patriots head into Sunday's game against the Broncos having just put some of those high-speed moves on the Chicago Bears to the tune of 487 yards in 71 plays. Brady finished the Patriots' 51-23 victory with 354 yards passing to go with five touchdowns.

But in '12, the Patriots, with former Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels calling the plays, took the Broncos by surprise. Several players said following the game they weren't ready for the pace. And while the Broncos did plenty right on defense, and held Rob Gronkowski to three receptions and sacked Brady four times, they were on their heels for much of the game, even before their comeback attempt ended with a late Willis McGahee fumble.

The Patriots scored on five of their first seven possessions, with touchdown drives that went 12, 14 and 16 plays to go with a field goal drive that went 16 plays. In all, four of New England's scoring drives went for at least 80 yards.

Former Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard once said it was "like when you keep trying to get up and somebody keeps pushing you back down right when you're about to stand up."

"Every offense has a rhythm and once they get in their rhythm, they're hard to stop," Harris said. "... Down there? Man, you saw the rhythm they had on us."

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known to change things up week-to-week in search of the right matchup, so the Broncos do go through this week's work in a be-ready-for-anything mode. But they know, at some point, and especially if the Patriots want to prevent the Broncos from substituting players on defense, Brady will push the pace.

In that 2012 game, the Patriots kept the Broncos in the nickel package by moving quickly and consistently and pounded out yardage in the run game against the lighter formation. The Patriots ran for 140 yards on 33 carries against the Broncos' nickel package (five defensive backs) that night to go with one run for 16 yards against the dime (six defensive backs).

"They're not afraid to pump it at you and do it in a hurry-up-offense style, especially at their place because they don't have any crowd noise deterrents," said Broncos coach John Fox. "A couple years ago, they ran it all over us. ... So it'll be a huge test."

It will also put a little extra responsibility on linebacker Brandon Marshall. Marshall, who wears the earpiece in his helmet to hear the plays from the sideline, makes the calls in the defensive huddle. And when the Patriots go at Mach 1, there isn't always time to wait for the calls from Del Rio.

"A lot of times we have to hurry up, we've got [to] call something, we can't wait for Jack," Harris said. "But Wes did that back then, Danny [Trevathan] does it for us, that's something we have to be ready for, something a little different for Brandon Marshall."

This time the Broncos will arrive with the league's No. 1 run defense, allowing 72.4 yards per game.

"Stop the run and slow down their tempo," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "If you get to the quarterback, stop the run, you slow their tempo; if you don't do that, they're going to go fast and faster. It's all first and second down, like for example, our quarterback, Peyton [Manning], third-and-5 is almost guaranteed, he's going to find the perfect guy. Just like Brady. He's going to get guys in the right spot, it's hard to stop. You've got to keep them in third-and-long."
Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib Getty ImagesBoth the Patriots and Broncos bolstered their defense by signing Darrelle Revis and Aqib Talib.
Since the start of the 2005 season, the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots have played 10 times, with three of those postseason games, including a 26-16 Denver win in the AFC Championship Game in January.

The two are so familiar with each other that even Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has joked, "The league says the schedule is random, like where you play, but that doesn't feel random. We're always facing them and it always feels like it's at their place."

In 2014, the Broncos play the Patriots again -- and it will be in Foxborough, Mass., for the second consecutive year (as part of the NFL's rotating schedule formula).

As two franchises with five Super Bowl wins between them race to make the most of what's left in the careers of their respective future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, they almost appear to be answering the other's signings.

So much so that Broncos executive vice president of football operations/general manager John Elway was even asked this past weekend if he felt like he was in an "arms race" with the Patriots during the free-agency period.

"You always know you have to go through New England," Elway said. "If you look at their track record the last 10 years, they're a team you're going to have to be able to deal with, and for us to get done what we want to get done, you've got to be able to beat them. It's kind of a fun type of arms race, and we'll see what happens next year."

ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold take a closer look at both teams' moves over the past week.

Legwold: Mike, the Broncos certainly see the Patriots as the chief hurdle in any attempt to get to another Super Bowl title, and whether they would admit it or not, the thought of having to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in a game that matters influences the decisions the Broncos make. How do the Patriots see this?

Reiss: Jeff, that will be atop the list of questions to ask Belichick the next time he meets with the press. As you might have noticed, unlike the Broncos, the Patriots haven't had any news conferences to trumpet their offseason moves, so we're left to answer this question for them based on their actions. And the answer, from this view, is the Broncos are a significant factor in the Patriots' decision-making process, specifically in what they're trying to put together defensively with physical press corners in Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. It's hard to get to Manning with the pass rush (what the Seahawks accomplished in the Super Bowl is the exception), so another way to disrupt that high-powered attack is getting physical in the secondary. I don't think building a team to beat the Broncos is their sole focus and would imagine Belichick will dismiss most of this line of thinking, but to me the actions speak loudly that it's at least part of the thought process.

One of the big questions I've heard from Patriots followers: "How are the Broncos signing all these players -- Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward, DeMarcus Ware, Emmanuel Sanders -- to such big-money contracts?" Along those lines, what is the Broncos' cap situation and could this be the type of thing that comes back to haunt them in future years?

Legwold: The short answer is the Broncos' cap situation was far better than many reported as free agency opened. They weren't on the list of teams that had no room to work with, and circumstances helped them as well. They had about $28.7 million worth of room when free agency was set to open -- that total was among the league's top 10 -- and gained another $10 million when they released Champ Bailey and another $4.1 million when guard Chris Kuper retired last week. They also structured most of the deals, including Talib's, with several kinds of bonuses in different years of the contract. Talib's deal is six years, $57 million on paper, but in reality, it's a three-year, $27 million contract that the Broncos could escape with limited cap implications after the 2014 season. They do not have any of the deals heavily front-loaded, essentially eliminating salary-cap implications down the road if they have to release the players after one or two years. They are selling the chance to play for a Super Bowl contender, and the players they signed were willing to work with them on deals that pay well if the player does well but make sense to the Broncos down the road, too. They simply bypassed the players who weren't willing to play ball that way. Also, they have made age a priority, with Talib, T.J. Ward and Sanders all just 27 or 28 years old. They have tried to limit their exposure with long-term contracts for 30-somethings.

With Wes Welker's signing last season and Talib's last week, there is an element of not only signing a free agent the Broncos want but also weakening a rival.

Mike, how do you think the Patriots saw those signings? Just business, or their players being targeted?

Also, Talib talked about the Patriots' injury-reporting procedures in his introductory news conference. How do you think those remarks were received in New England?

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Gail BurtonTom Brady has said he wants to play until he's 40 years old.
Reiss: More in the "just business” category. There is a pretty strong resolve among the team's decision-makers in how they want to build their team and what they view as the most responsible financial decisions. So, right or wrong, they often set a price and don't budge too far off it, knowing that could mean a player winds up on a top competitor. That's basically what happened with Welker and Talib. As for Talib's remarks, I don't think it was anything inflammatory in the eyes of the Patriots. Talib was very well-liked here, and I don't think what he said changes anything along those lines.

We remember from all the talk about the Eagles' "Dream Team” a few years ago that assembling talent is only part of the equation. It's how it comes together.

Jeff, can you shed some insight on the Broncos' locker room, the leadership, and if there should be any concern on how all the impressive individual parts come together as a team?

Legwold: The Broncos have a little different structure than most teams in that they are the only one with a Hall of Fame quarterback who is a sports icon in the same city where he also happens to run the team. Elway is the ultimate Alpha Dog in terms of how things go here, even with Manning in the locker room. But the Broncos like the makeup of their locker room, but it will be a year of transition in that regard given three former captains -- Bailey, Kuper and Wesley Woodyard -- have all departed. At the roster level, Manning's presence is all over the offense, and on defense they see youngsters such as Danny Trevathan and Chris Harris Jr. as future captains. They also believe they've been careful in the players they've signed -- Elway makes it clear who is, or isn't, what they are looking for. That said of the new arrivals, there certainly is the hope that Ware can be a mentor to Von Miller, both on and off the field, after Miller's rocky ride in 2013 that included a six-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Mike, there is a sense in Denver that Manning's career is winding down and that 2014 could be it. But what is the feeling about Brady and how much longer he intends to play?

Reiss: Brady is signed through 2017, and there is every expectation he will play to the end of that contract, and play at a high level. Brady has previously said he'd like to play into his 40s, and I don't think anyone would be wise to bet against that after what we've seen from him since he was selected 199th overall in the 2000 draft. He keeps himself in excellent physical condition and basically lives football year-round. So assuming good health, I'd put '17 as the earliest marker to when we might close the book on his career. He'd be 40 at that point.

Jeff, with the moves the Broncos have made, where do you see them as better than last year, and where is there work still to be done?

Legwold: We asked Elway that question Sunday when Sanders arrived as the latest signing. Elway's response was: "I do think we're better, especially when you consider we had five starters on defense on injured reserve last year. When I could move those names off IR, back onto our roster board, I felt a lot better about our team even before free agency opened. And now we added some guys who we think are the right kind of guys and who fill some big needs for us."

The Broncos' goal has been to use free agency to fill what Elway has called "glaring needs" so they can continue to draft the best available guys, no matter the position. They still need some depth on the offensive line, a middle linebacker who would play only in the base, and they will look at wide receiver and cornerback in the draft as well.

DENVER -- When Hall of Famer John Elway sat across a nicely appointed desk from Peyton Manning, whose gold jacket is a future given, a promise was made.

A promise that went beyond the recruitment of the most decorated free agent to ever hit the open market in the NFL's history, a promise of what could be if both took a leap of football hope and faith.

Elway made a promise to Manning 22 months ago that he would "do everything in my power to make sure [Manning] finishes his career the way I finished mine."

Make no mistake, children across the Front Range leave their footy pajamas behind carrying the knowledge Elway won back-to-back Super Bowls in his final two seasons with the Denver Broncos. And in his third season as the Broncos' chief football decision-maker, hired by Pat Bowlen to restore glory and secure trophies, Elway has now seen Manning lead the Broncos into the Super Bowl.

Manning was at his take-that best Sunday as he swatted away the pregame chatter about his record against Bill Belichick, about his oh-so-many on-field battles with Tom Brady, with a performance that was as efficient as it was relentless in a 26-16 victory in the AFC Championship Game. Manning finished 32-of-43 for 400 yards and two touchdowns.

He wasn't sacked, was rarely even disturbed as he went about his work and did not throw an interception. The Broncos and Manning dropped a total of 507 yards worth of misery on Belichick's defensive game plan and flaunted the variety that has vexed defenses all season long.

Five different players caught at least three passes as eight players had receptions overall. Or as Belichick put it, in his own bottom-line way: "They've got a lot of good players."

That they do. And in the end, it was Belichick who provided the nudge that pushed the Broncos to where they were Sunday.

It was Jan. 14, 2012, when Belichick dismantled the Broncos' postseason run powered by Tim Tebow and a read-option offense. In a 45-10 hide-your-eyes Patriots win, Tebow was 9-of-26 for 136 yards and was sacked five times.

It dropped the curtain on what had been a dynamic stretch for the Broncos, who had unveiled the read-option after making Tebow the starter, a run that included an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the wild-card round. And the loss left the Broncos at a crossroads.

Broncos coach John Fox said this past week that "I remember we lost in the playoffs in New England that year, and it was a pretty good indicator of how far we had to get moving."

Then, after Manning was cut loose by the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks later, Elway and the Broncos closed the deal on the surgically repaired quarterback. Manning has gotten better and better since.

He threw a franchise-record 37 touchdowns in 2012, threw a league single-season record 55 touchdowns in 2013.

"There was a lot of uncertainty, whether he was going to play anymore," said Archie Manning, Peyton's father. "That kind of makes it special ... His age, what he went through, playing the quarterback position in this league, we tried to stay positive with him. He handled it so well."

"He's a great man off the field, a great leader and a great person to follow because he does everything right," said Broncos rookie running back Montee Ball.

But simply landing Manning wasn't all Elway did. He hit on some draft picks, players like Ball, Orlando Franklin and tight end Julius Thomas. He got a coach in Fox who assembled a staff with both veteran hands like defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and mark-it-down, up-and-comers like offensive coordinator Adam Gase. Elway also got more from inherited players such as Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Knowshon Moreno.

He had to deal with last January's crushing playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens; and Von Miller's six-game suspension to open the season; Fox's open-heart surgery; a long list of injuries that included Pro Bowl tackle Ryan Clady, Miller and Chris Harris Jr.; and making the right call on short-term signings like defensive end Shaun Phillips and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He had to maintain his composure and hold the door against complacency.

"It meant we had to deal with everything we had to deal with, to keep the focus on what needed to be done," Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said. " ... A lot of people talk about being good, but you have to do the things that need doing to be good. All the time, every day. All you want is a shot at the big game, and we have that. Now you get to work on that one game."

People are always telling Elway, because his quarterback is 37 years old and in his 16th season after four neck surgeries, that the Broncos need to win now. Elway's retort is not a surprise to anyone who knows him, to any of those who were in the huddle with him while the game was on the line.

Elway always says "it's about win [from] now on."

It was all there Sunday, awash in orange, played out with the emotion of a team making its first Super Bowl appearance since Elway was its quarterback. It will be a Super Bowl where the Broncos will be asked questions about whether their high-powered offense can handle a snowy day, can handle a muscle-bound defense from the NFC or if the Broncos' defense can be good enough, for one more game, to get it all done.

And it will be a Super Bowl game where a promise is kept.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Even as two teams that won 12 and 13 games in the regular season fell all over themselves to try to be the underdog this week -- even John Elway offered that “no one thought" the Broncos would “get by" San Diego to even get this far -- the topic of the Denver Broncos' Nov. 24 trip to Foxborough, Mass., has come up more than once in recent days.

Come up in the framework of whether the New England Patriots' 34-31 overtime victory in a game the Broncos led 24-0 at halftime has any bearing on Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

The Broncos rushed for 280 yards in the game and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw for 344 as both teams played half a game that was decided when a punt hit Tony Carter's leg and put the Patriots in position for the game-winning field goal.

[+] EnlargeManning/Brady
AP Photo/Steven SennePeyton Manning, front, and the Broncos would just as soon forget their overtime loss against Tom Brady's New England Patriots on Nov. 24.
“Again, just like I’m sure they’re doing, you look at things, you look at matchups, you look at schemes," Broncos coach John Fox said. “But that game will have little to nothing to do with this game. Typically, they’re always different."

Well, yes and no.

Certainly, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is known for rarely attacking a problem the same way twice. Or at least twice the same way in such a short period of time. And some of the names have already changed in the weeks since.

Whether it was the frigid conditions -- 22 degrees at kickoff with wind gusts of up to 40 miles an hour -- or Belichick’s usual crafty ways, the Patriots held Peyton Manning to 150 passing yards.

That was by far a season low in a game in which the Broncos spent virtually the entire game in their three-wide-receiver look -- every snap but two. The Broncos did not have tight end Julius Thomas in the lineup that night -- it was one of two games Thomas missed this season with a knee injury -- and the Patriots did well in doubling Wes Welker and forcing Manning away from his usual favorites.

Eric Decker finished that game with just one reception, and Demaryius Thomas and Welker, who had three drops in the game, had four receptions each. Overall, it was the worst outing of the season for the Broncos' pass-catchers as they finished with a season-high seven drops.

“And you have to clean those things up," Decker said. “If you have opportunities to make plays, you have to make them."

Defensively, the Broncos will not face do-it-all tight end Rob Gronkowski this time around -- he’s now on injured reserve -- so the Patriots' offense will look vastly different, at least as far as intent. The Patriots have been far more run-first in their approach in recent weeks as Brady has completed 14, 14 and 13 passes in the past three games, respectively.

In the last meeting, Brady used Gronkowski to get back in the game -- Gronkowski had seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown -- and Julian Edelman finished with 110 yards on his nine receptions, including two touchdowns. The Broncos figure to use veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, who did not play in the Nov. 24 game, at least some against Edelman.

“They came out and played a great second half of football, there is no doubt about that," said Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan. “There is nothing else to say. They just came out and played -- they fixed what they needed to fix, and we didn’t adjust well to what they fixed. We have to be able to, when we’re up, stay up, and, if we’re down, get up on them and keep them down.”

The Broncos also fumbled five times in November, losing three on a night when the teams lost a combined six fumbles.

But, in the end, the Broncos closed out the week wanting neither to remember that sliver of history all that much nor be doomed to repeat it. They have chosen to look at Sunday’s game as its own set of circumstances with a chance at the Super Bowl at stake.

“Every game is a learning experience, but that one really taught us something," Trevathan said. “It is a different day, a different attitude and a different mindset. We’re going to go out here and do what we have to do to get a win."

“You look at it, but they’ve been through a lot to get this far, we’ve been through a lot to get this far," Bailey said. “And a month is forever, and that was a month ago, almost two months. We’re on to this one, and you don’t need any more than that."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- There were times Wednesday when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was at his pizza-hawking, SNL-hosting, cut-that-meat best. Manning was taking his usual Wednesday lap with the media, in preparation of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, when he strayed off the one-game-at-a-time straight and narrow at times.

Manning
And in between saying New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick would go down “as the greatest NFL coach of all time," and that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has been “a better player each year than he was the year before," Manning offered a few other gems along the way.

Asked about “Omaha," and what it means, Manning said;

“Was that like a fan written-in question? I’m not sure how to answer that, but I’ve had a lot of people ask what Omaha means. Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action play, depending on a couple things -- the wind, which way we’re going, the quarter and the jerseys we’re wearing. It varies play to play. There’s your answer on that one."

Asked why he chose Omaha, he said;

"It wasn't my pick, I guess."

Asked about if he would quiz cornerback Marquice Cole, a former Patriots player the Broncos signed Tuesday, on the New England defense, he said;

“I just said ‘how are you doing? My name’s Peyton. Good to have you here’ about five minutes ago. So that’s the extent of it so far. No telling where it will go, but that was the starting point."

Manning did get to the task at hand as well. Sunday’s game will be Manning’s fourth career AFC Championship Game appearance, his first with the Broncos. The Colts were 2-1 in the previous three with a win in Super Bowl XLI to close out the 2006 season.

“We’re excited about the opportunity, we’ve worked hard to get to this point," Manning said. “Coach (John) Fox mentioned how many obstacles the Patriots have overcome to be in this game. We’ve overcome a number of obstacles as well to get here ... It’s commendable to the team that we fought through those obstacles and we put ourselves in this position and are playing a great football team -- AFC Championship, it’s certainly exciting."
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Denver Broncos head coach John Fox had just been asked about how teams all over the league seem intent on finding a guy like Julius Thomas these days.

“I think they're hard to find,'' Fox said. “It's kind of a unique position because you have to block and be a receiver -- and that is a unique, physical body to find, with that athleticism. It's like trying to find a center in the NBA. I mean, it's not easy to do.''

Fox could just as well been talking about why the position is so difficult to defend in today's NFL as much as he was about the difficulty in finding the guy to play it in the first place.
In Sunday's AFC Championship the full spectrum of the position will be on display in the two team's offenses. The guy who could do it all, the matchup nightmare of nightmares at the position, Rob Gronkowski is on injured reserve for the Patriots, so he is not on the Broncos' defensive to-do list.

But in Thomas, the Broncos have the kind of pass catcher everyone covets at the position in this wide-open era. He is riding a breakout season that has included 65 receptions to go with 12 touchdowns as well as an invitation to the Pro Bowl. Thomas is too quick, too agile with too much top-end speed for most of the linebackers who have tried to shadow him this year. He's too strong, with too much reach, for most of the defensive backs who have taken their turn as well. And while his blocking remains a work in progress, when Peyton Manning throws you the ball on a third-and-17 late in the fourth quarter with a playoff game on the line you have arrived as a go-to guy in the pattern.

Even though the Patriots have a linebacker with athleticism in rookie Jamie Collins -- the former safety ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at last February's scouting combine at 250 pounds and his drop into the passing lane to snatch an Andrew Luck pass last weekend had the look of a cornerback in coverage -- New England's defensive staff will still face plenty of difficult choices in what to do with Thomas. Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase is willing to line up Thomas all over the formation, often forcing defenses to put bigger players in the open spaces where they are not nearly as comfortable.

But the Broncos will have their own problems with the position as well. While the Patriots' Michael Hoomanawanui had just one catch in last Saturday night's Patriots win over the Indianapolis Colts, he was no less a matchup problem for the Colts in that game. As the Patriots pounded out 234 yards rushing, it was Hoomanawanui who was often creating the crease on the outside edge, consistently allowing the Patriots to plow open holes as if they had six offensive linemen in the game.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is one of the game's most proficient practitioners of situational football. Belichick consistently creates the matchups on both sides of the ball that suit his team the best against a particular opponent and sticks to it.

To that end Belichick played Hoomanawanui on every offensive snap in the game -- 74 in all. Overall the Patriots used a two-tight end look for 34 plays in the game.

It means Broncos defensive ends Jeremy Mincey, Robert Ayers and Shaun Phillips will have to find a way to disengage from Hoomanawanui and hold the edge. Because if running backs LeGarrette Blount and Stevan Ridley are getting the corner down after down against the Broncos that will be every bit as disruptive as Thomas helping the Broncos to move the chains.
Knowshon MorenoMatthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsKnowshon Moreno and the Broncos rushed for 133 yards on 34 carries against the Chargers.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Denver Broncos are the face of a passing league.

They launched 675 passes this season, but it probably seemed like more to the defenses caught in the vapor trail. Quarterback Peyton Manning finished out the regular season with 5,477 passing yards and 55 touchdowns. If you're thinking about an NFL offense, there is a good chance you're thinking about Manning and the Broncos' fast-break, no-huddle attack first, or you don't get too far down the list before you do.

But in the postseason? The postseason brings the potential of defenses good enough to take away a team's preferred option. It also brings with it weather, with the kind of wind that grounds flights, let alone quarterbacks.

"We always want to have that option," Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno said of the team's ground game. "If they start calling our numbers, no question Montee [Ball] and I want to be ready to be those guys."

The highest-scoring offense in league history has already played its wild card in these playoffs. The Broncos ran the ball 34 times for 133 yards in their divisional round win over the San Diego Chargers. There is a feeling around the team that even with Manning and a passing attack that features a staggering five different players with at least 60 catches, the Broncos will need to go by land from time to time.

[+] EnlargeDenver's Montee Ball
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyRookie running back Montee Ball had 10 carries for 52 yards against the Chargers.
Sunday, the Broncos pounded when they needed to pound, they kept the Chargers off-balance enough that Manning was not sacked, and the Broncos threw the ball just two more times than they ran it. In the regular season, the Broncos threw the ball on 58.4 percent of their offensive snaps.

"It was critical; we stressed all week being productive on first and second down," Manning said. "We did not do that last time we played San Diego and got into some third downs and didn't convert those. We were good on third down because we were good on first and second down. That was the point of emphasis all week, and we carried that from the practice field to the playing field. It was good to see that pay off. A mix of some runs and some short passes to keep moving the chains. So it was a good job by the guys up front. I thought Montee and Knowshon both ran really hard.”

The Broncos were certainly not alone this past weekend. The four winning teams in the divisional round ran the ball a combined 149 times. In fact, the average rushing line in the four games was 37.25 carries for 166.75 yards. The Patriots ran for 234 yards, the Seahawks ran for 174 yards, the 49ers ran for 126, all to go with the Broncos' 133 yards.

That's a whole lot of dirt under a whole lot of fingernails for a league that has supposedly left grind-it-out football behind. But there is plenty of logic to go with the necessity. With passing attacks like the Broncos and Patriots have, defenses often answer with smaller personnel groupings in both the defensive line and in the secondary.

Against defenses built for speed, New England coach Bill Belichick has even taken the approach a step further. They not only run against those lighter groupings, they can repeatedly pound away with the mammoth LeGarrette Blount, at 250 pounds, or the 220-pound Stevan Ridley.

The Patriots ran the ball on 62.5 percent of the their offensive snaps in Saturday night's victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

And the last time the Broncos and Patriots faced each other this season -- Nov. 24 on a frigid, blustery night in Foxborough, Mass. -- the Broncos ran for 280 yards, with all but one of their 48 carries coming out of a three-wide receiver formation. They had 38 of those runs with Manning lined up in shotgun.

"When we're efficient in our running game, that is when you're looking for that balance." Gase said. "When we're able to move the ball efficiently in the running game and the passing game, that's when you get that. It's never really going to be 50-50. You try to get that. A lot of times it's probably more 60-40 for us ... And that is on me to make sure we make the adjustments we need to make and then stick with the run."

Because of the constant threat of the passing game all across the league, defenses are built more for situational football, for moving people in and out of the lineup, to defend wide-open formations and uberquarterbacks. Some defenses just aren't built to dig in, down after down, and defend, helmet on a helmet, the point of attack in run defense.

It's not so true in the NFC, where the two remaining teams in the postseason both finished in the league's top 10 in run defense -- San Francisco was fourth and Seattle was tied for seventh. In the AFC, however, only two teams in the playoff field (the Broncos and Cincinnati) finished among the league's top 10 in run defense (Cincinnati No. 5, Denver No. 7).

"We always feel like, as a defense, we need to be ready for when offenses line up and come right at us," Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "I think in this time of year, teams are always going to look to run the ball. I think it's always been that way."

"I think balance is important, keeping the ability to do both [on offense]," Broncos head coach John Fox said. "It keeps defenses guessing a little better. It' s not easy to do, something you stress, something that I believe is important, especially in playoff season."

Rapid Reaction: Denver Broncos

November, 25, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Denver Broncos' 34-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots.

What it means: The Broncos' 2012 season turned with a Week 6 comeback in San Diego, when the Broncos trailed 24-0 at halftime and roared back to beat the Chargers 35-24. This season, they must now work from the other end of the spectrum after having let a 24-0 lead of their own slip away on a night when Peyton Manning again struggled in the cold and the offense went into the deep freeze until a game-tying drive. In the end, the Broncos couldn't overcome a special-teams mistake by Tony Carter.

Stock watch: At least for one half, the Broncos saw the Von Miller they have been waiting for since his suspension ended in Week 7. Miller dominated the opening half with a 60-yard fumble return for a touchdown to go with two sacks, including a strip of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady that forced a fumble. However, Miller didn’t have near the same impact after halftime, particularly in the pass rush, as Brady threw for well more than 200 yards in the second half and overtime combined.

The sequel: Patriots coach Bill Belichick is noted for picking away at what you don’t want to do, and in recent meetings with the Broncos, he has often chosen to throw the ball against the Broncos defense when it’s in the bigger base look and run on the Broncos when they are in a smaller nickel package (five defensive backs). Of the Patriots' 251 rushing yards in last season’s meeting, 140 came against the nickel, and through three quarters Sunday night, the Patriots had ground out 65 of their 87 rushing yards in the nickel.

Go with what you know: Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was targeted just twice by Brady in the first half and had just one catch as the Broncos used a combination of linebackers and safeties to track the Pro Bowler. The Patriots obviously wanted to make sure he got far more involved after halftime. Gronkowski had three catches in the third quarter alone, including a touchdown.

What’s next: When the Kansas City Chiefs came to Denver in Week 11, they were 9-0 and at the top of the division. Next Sunday, the Broncos will go to Arrowhead Stadium to face a 9-2 Chiefs team with two of Kansas City's best defenders -- Tamba Hali and Justin Houston -- dealing with injuries. And the Broncos are a battered group after Sunday night's old-school scrap.

Broncos-Patriots matchup of the day

November, 22, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long been considered by his peers to be one of the league’s best defensive minds, particularly in how he coaches, and arranges, the players in the secondary.

His defenses understand what quarterbacks want to do in a variety of situations, and they play with discipline, almost no matter who is on the depth chart. But his cornerbacks and safeties in particular have always been well-schooled and able to take the lessons from the classroom on to the field.

Manning
Belichick
The talent in recent years may not rival some of his first teams in New England when he had the likes of Ty Law, Asante Samuel and Rodney Harrison in the secondary, but they often get it done when they need to. Even this season, despite a variety of injuries, the Patriots have succeeded in keeping teams out of the end zone enough to be 7-3.

Sunday, however, the Patriots will face an offense often with four or sometimes five receiving targets in the pattern. The Denver Broncos play with the kind of balance that few, if any, teams can match. After 10 games, they have three players with at least nine touchdown catches and four players with at least 45 receptions (and running back Knowshon Moreno has 37 catches). That is next-level spread-it-around.

How Belichick deploys the players in his battered secondary, and how Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning deals with it, will have a lot to say about how things go Sunday night. Belichick has routinely picked coverage over pressure when facing Manning through the years, even rushing as few as two or three players at times to get as many people in coverage as possible.

But Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib has a hip injury and cornerback Kyle Arrington has a groin injury. Belichick and Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have matched Talib on an offense’s best receiver at times this season, but if he isn’t 100 percent Sunday and is still in the lineup, it would be a lot to ask of him to trail Demaryius Thomas for an entire game.

Arrington has played as the slot corner when the Patriots are in the nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) – most teams line up in either when facing the Broncos’ three-wide-receiver look – and that would put him across from Wes Welker much of the time. The Broncos believe they will see both Talib and Arrington in the lineup Sunday night.

Patriots safety Steve Gregory has a fractured finger, did not play in the Patriots’ loss to the Panthers this past Monday night and remains a question mark for Sunday's game. The Patriots will also be without cornerback Alfonzo Dennard against the Broncos because of a knee injury.

It all means Belichick figures to mix and match in coverage with plenty of zone looks. If history holds true, the Patriots will try what several teams have done with the Broncos this season: knocking receivers out of their routes early with plenty of the physical stuff.

The Colts and the Jaguars disrupted the Broncos’ offense some with the tactic, and Denver's receivers will have to be ready to play through it and get themselves in the right spots.

Fun With Numbers: Denver Broncos

November, 21, 2013
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is a matchup that is awash in numbers, but it is rather remarkable how many times Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has faced the New England Patriots in his decorated career.

Especially when you consider Manning has not played in the same division as the Patriots since the league did its most recent realignment following the 2001 season -- Manning’s fourth year in the league. Sunday night will be the 17th time Manning has faced the Patriots since Bill Belichick became the team’s coach in 2000 and the 14th time he will have faced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady head to head -- both totals include three playoff meetings.

After some numbers crunching, as well as another huge nod to the fine folks at ESPN Stats & Information, here are some numbers of note:
  • Of Manning’s 14 games against Brady, eight have been at New England, including two of the three playoff games. Or as Manning put it with a laugh: “It seems like I sure do go there a lot -- out there to Foxborough. I don’t know how that always works, I guess it’s always random they say, but it’s been strange how that works out.’’
  • The Patriots and Broncos are already scheduled to play in the 2014 regular season as well since, in the schedule rotation, the AFC East is slated to play the AFC West.
  • The Patriots held Manning without a touchdown pass in just one of those 14 games -- the AFC divisional-round game to close out the 2004 season, a 20-3 Patriots win.
  • Manning has a season-low one touchdown pass in the 27-17 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs last Sunday night. And while that number often makes defensive coordinators feel pretty good, it shouldn't. With that win, Manning is 149-57 in games in which he throws just one touchdown pass -- a .723 winning percentage.
  • The Broncos' 398 points are already, with six games remaining, the fifth-most scored in a season in the franchise’s history. Should they score two points Sunday, it will also be just the fifth time the team has scored at least 400 points in a season. The franchise record is 501 points, by the 1998 team.
  • In 20 previous meetings against Belichick as a team’s defensive playcaller or head coach, Manning has thrown for at least 300 yards in just eight of the games. Manning has thrown for at least three touchdowns in seven of those games, including the last three in a row.
  • Manning is 7-13 against the Patriots in his career -- a .350 winning percentage -- his worst mark against any team he has faced more than three times.
  • Inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, Manning is 17-of-19 on pass attempts to Wes Welker with eight touchdowns.
  • If it seems like Manning is getting rid of the ball faster than most other quarterbacks these days, it’s because he is. Manning has been the fastest in the league this season, holding the ball just 2.83 seconds on average on his dropbacks. He is the only quarterback under three seconds, on average, with the Bengals' Andy Dalton at No. 2 (3.02) and the Lions' Matthew Stafford at No. 3 (3.06). As a result Stafford (12 sacks) and Manning (13 sacks) have been sacked the least among quarterbacks who have started every game this season.

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