An important thing to look at as the Super Bowl draws near is how the actual representatives of their respective conferences punched their ticket for a chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl champions. We’ve already detailed the road to the Super Bowl for Carolina; now, we’ll take a look at how the Denver Broncos found their way to Santa Clara.
Regular Season Record: 12-4
Standing: 1st in AFC West, top overall team in the AFC
AFC Wild Card Round: Bye
AFC Divisional Playoff: Beat Pittsburgh 23-16 at home
AFC Championship Game: Beat New England 20-18 at home
To say the Denver Broncos didn’t have the paved road to the Super Bowl that the Carolina Panthers had would be an understatement. While the Panthers rolled to a 15-1 record while avoiding many major injuries, Denver had to deal with potholes, detours, road blocks and a hard charging division rival. Carolina had the NFC South and home field advantage locked up pretty much in mid-December; at that point in time, Denver still had the real possibility of not even being in the playoffs, much less where they are now.
Denver had a slew of tight games this season: nine of their 12 regular season wins and both of their playoff victories were by seven points or less. The Broncos won three games in overtime as they edged Cleveland, New England and Cincinnati in the extra session. Denver’s biggest margin of victory was a 19 point win over Green Bay at home in week eight as they prevailed 29-10. The Broncos were coming off a bye so they were well rested.
The Broncos relied on their defense early on in the season. Denver held off Baltimore 19-13 at home in their season opener in a game that saw the Broncos kick four field goals offensively. Their lone touchdown in that game came on an interception return by Aqib Talib. The Broncos followed that up with a 31-24 road win in prime time over the Chiefs in a game that saw Denver tie the game with 36 seconds to play. On the next play from scrimmage, Jamaal Charles fumbled the ball and Bradley Roby’s 21 yard return for a touchdown gave the Broncos an improbable victory. The Broncos went on to a 24-12 road win over Detroit in week 3. In week 4, the Broncos blew leads of 13-0 and 20-10 at home to Minnesota before Brandon McManus booted a 39 yard field goal with 1:51 to play to give Denver a 23-20 victory.
Denver continued to walk the tightrope in close games to remain undefeated in week 5 as they edged the Raiders 16-10 on the road. That was another game without an offensive touchdown for the Broncos: their lone touchdown came on a 74 yard pick six by Chris Harris Jr. to help the Broncos to 5-0. In week 6, Denver got more big plays from their defense as they managed to hang in despite three Manning interceptions, including one that was returned for a score. With the game on the line, Manning led the Broncos to the game winning field goal in overtime as Denver prevailed 26-23 over the Browns. That sent Denver into the bye 6-0; it marked the seventh time in franchise history that the Broncos won their first six games. In week eight, Denver clobbered Green Bay 29-10 to go to 7-0 but the magic would end there. The Broncos were down 17-0 against the Colts but rallied to tie the game. Adam Vinatieri’s 55 yard field goal with 6:13 to play gave Indianapolis a 27-24 victory.
The week 10 rematch with the Chiefs proved to be a major crossroads for the Broncos. While Manning set the NFL record for career passing yards in the game, he also tossed four interceptions and was five of 20 for 35 yards before taking a seat. At that point, fans were told he was just removed to get some rest since he didn’t have his A game. As it turned out, Manning was dealing with a torn plantar fascia that would sideline him for most of the rest of the regular season. Unproven Brock Osweiler was thrust into the starting role after he came on in relief in Denver’s 29-13 loss.
Osweiler did enough to get Denver a win in his first career start as the Broncos beat the Bears 17-15 on the road in week 11. The Broncos’ defense came up with the crucial play as they stuffed Jeremy Langford on a potential game-tying two point conversion with just over a minute to play. Denver had their hands full with the Patriots at home in week 12. After trailing 21-7 in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, Osweiler led the Broncos to 17 unanswered points to take a 24-21 lead. The Patriots tied the game as time expired but C.J. Anderson’s 48 yard touchdown run 2:28 into overtime gave Denver a 30-24 win and gave the Patriots their first loss of the year. The Broncos throttled San Diego 17-3 in week 13 to improve to 10-2 on the season.
Things went south for Denver the next two weeks. The Broncos fell 15-12 at home to Oakland as they blew a 12-0 halftime lead. Osweiler was sacked five times by Khalil Mack in the second half, including one for a safety. Denver was kept out of the end zone again as they settled for four McManus field goals. A week later in Pittsburgh, Denver led 27-10 late in the second quarter and 27-13 at the half. Unfortunately, the Broncos forgot the game had two halves as they were outscored 21-0 after intermission in a 34-27 loss.
With their backs to the wall, Denver clawed their way to a 20-17 overtime win at home against the Bengals in week 16. The Broncos caught a break with Cincinnati having to start A.J. McCarron at quarterback with Andy Dalton out with a broken thumb. The Broncos rallied from a 14-0 deficit to take a 17-14 lead. After Cincinnati tied the game to force overtime, the Broncos got a 37 yard field goal from McManus to take the lead. On the next snap from scrimmage, McCarron fumbled the snap and Demarcus Ware recovered to end the game and clinch a playoff berth for the Broncos. In week 17, Osweiler was struggling and went to the bench in the third quarter. With the game and the division title hanging in the balance, Manning came in and led the Broncos to four second half scoring drives in a 27-20 win that gave Denver the AFC West crown. Coupled with New England’s loss to Miami, the Broncos ended up with home field advantage in the playoffs.
After resting while the wild card round determined their divisional playoff opponent, the Broncos were ready for action. Coach Gary Kubiak announced that Manning would be the starter in the playoffs. The Broncos got a rematch with the Steelers in the divisional round. It was another tough offensive outing for Denver as they had just four field goals to their credit after three quarters. Trailing 13-12, Denver forced a fumble by Fitzgerald Toussaint. Manning led Denver 65 yards in 13 plays to the go-ahead touchdown on a 1 yard run by Anderson. Manning connected with Demaryius Thomas on the two point conversion to make it 20-13 Broncos. After holding Pittsburgh on downs, McManus kicked a 45 yard field goal with 53 seconds to go, giving the Broncos a 10 point edge. The Steelers added a field goal with 19 seconds to play but couldn’t recover the ensuing onside kick.
In the AFC Championship, the Broncos were intent on getting pressure on Tom Brady. Denver’s defense battered Brady all game long, recording four sacks, 20 quarterback hits and two interceptions. Manning hooked up with Owen Daniels on two first half touchdown passes. In the fourth quarter, the defense came up big, stuffing New England on a 4th and 1 from the Broncos 17 with just over six minutes to play. On New England’s next possession, Denver halted Brady and the Patriots on 4th and 6 from the Denver 14 by breaking up a pass intended for Rob Gronkowski with 2:25 to go. The Broncos gave up a touchdown with 12 seconds to play but on the ensuing two point conversion that could have tied the game, Roby came up with an interception on a pass intended for Julian Edelman. Denver recovered the ensuing onside kick and sealed their second trip to the Super Bowl in three years and eighth in franchise history.
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