- Ashley Fox
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Call it the power of the program.
Every team in the National Football League faces adversity during the season. Every team suffers injuries. Every team has key players get hurt. Every team has crushing losses.
Not every team endures. Not every team adjusts. Not every team can withstand a dumpster fire and emerge relatively unaffected with a division championship and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
But not every team is Denver or New England. That the Broncos and Patriots will face each other in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday in Denver is a testament to the power of their programs.
Both teams faced extreme adversity, yet both made it through.
Let's start with Denver.
The Broncos started the season without their best pass-rusher, Von Miller, who had to serve a six-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. The Broncos went 6-0 without Miller, who came back and started nine games before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in a Week 16 win at Houston that clinched the AFC West for Denver.
The Broncos lost their most valuable offensive lineman, left tackle Ryan Clady, for the year in Week 2.
And then, during the bye week in early November, Denver lost coach John Fox for a month because he needed open-heart surgery. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio took over for Fox and went 3-1, with the lone defeat an overtime loss at New England in a game in which Denver led 24-0 at halftime.
Best pass-rusher, out. Peyton Manning's blindside protector, out. Head coach, out. And the Broncos kept churning, finishing the season with 13 wins and a league-record 606 points scored.
The latest adversity the Broncos must contend with: They will have to face the Patriots without starting cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his left ACL last weekend against San Diego.
New England's degree of difficulty has been even greater.
In free agency, the Patriots lost Tom Brady's favorite receiver, Wes Welker, to Denver, of all places. Brady's favorite red zone target, tight end Rob Gronkowski, missed the first six games of the season following back surgery on June. 18. In his seventh game back, in Week 14 against Cleveland, Gronkowski tore his ACL and MCL, ending his season.
The Patriots lost tackle Sebastian Vollmer to a leg injury. The middle of their defense -- the part Bill Belichick prizes most -- was gutted, with season-ending injuries to linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder), nose tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and defensive end Tommy Kelly (knee).
Out of necessity, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels turned to the running game late in the season, which is why they are sitting here on the eve of the Patriots' eighth conference championship game under Belichick. The Patriots have a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in Tom Brady, who played every snap this season, and yet Belichick and McDaniels asked Brady to hand off 46 times last weekend against Indianapolis, and put the game in the hands of a player Tampa Bay discarded for a seventh-round draft pick.
The program works.
"I don't know what the other 31 teams are doing," Belichick said. "I just know what we're doing. We try to do what we feel is best for our football team. Every day of the year, 365 days a year, we try to make the best decisions we can for our football team.
"Each organization I would say has their own individual style. Each coach has his style. Each team is different. They're all in the same league, but they're all different. We try to do what we feel like is best for us. Whether that's what somebody else does or doesn't do in some portion of it, I don't really know."
It doesn't hurt, of course, that the Patriots and Broncos have two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game on their rosters. And while it is more obvious than ever that finding a franchise quarterback is the key to success in the NFL, it would be shortsighted to say that New England and Denver win only because of Brady and Manning.
No, Denver and New England, from ownership on down, figured out that having the right program matters. Trust matters. Working relationships matter. The head coach has to have autonomy from the front office. Both sides must continuously pull together, through the good times and the bad. When things go awry, which they always do, you can't have personnel people blaming coaches for not using players properly, or have coaches blaming personnel people for not giving them better players.
Whether it's the Patriot way or the John Elway way, both franchises have figured it out. Their programs are established, and it's no coincidence that one will be playing on the final Sunday of the NFL season.
Whether it’s the Patriot Way or the John Elway way, New England and Denver have figured out how to conquer the NFL's war of attrition, writes Ashley Fox.