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Tested, Scarred and Ready for January

Posted Dec 29, 2013

Independent Analyst Andrew Mason takes a look at Denver's Week 17 win at Oakland and what it means moving into the postseason.

Oakland, Calif. --So the Broncos have the league's best record, sharing the distinction with the NFC's top team, and have the top seed in the AFC. If this were the NHL or the Premier League, they'd get a trophy for their season-long accomplishment.

The NFL has no such reward, of course. And while the satchel of records and accomplishments is enough to make it a standout campaign among the Broncos' 54 seasons, we've all known since last January that their 2013 season would not be defined until the calendar turned to 2014.

Pedestrian regular-season records for Super Bowl champions have become commonplace. The 2010 Packers and 2012 Ravens won it all with 10-6 records; the 2011 Giants lugged a 9-7 mark that is often not enough to get a team to the postseason, let alone a Super Bowl.

And recent postseasons have blasted holes in the notions that late-season momentum matters, and that carrying a long winning streak creates some notion of invincibility. The Broncos learned that first-hand last year; they had won 11 consecutive games heading into the postseason and lost to a Ravens squad that limped into the postseason on a 1-4 slide.

Nevertheless, winning Sunday's game mattered. 

It ensured that the Broncos, a gaudy 14-2 at home in the last two regular seasons, would stay at home, where the franchise is 13-4 all-time in the postseason, compared with 3-9 on the road and 2-4 at neutral venues.

Don't let last season's 38-35 defeat to the Ravens fool you; over the long haul, home-field advantage is relevant, and it's especially valuable to a team that wants to play at a quick tempo to exhaust opposing defenses unaccustomed to breathing at 5,280 feet above sea level.

It is an advantage the Broncos have earned. But it is merely an advantage, not an assurance of success. 

"We’ve got the best position possible going into the playoffs. It just means we’ve got to keep grinding," said cornerback Champ Bailey. "It really doesn’t matter what seed you are, to be honest with you. You’ve got to be ready to go, because whoever you face is going to be a really good football team.”

It will be a team the Broncos have faced before. If it's the fourth-seeded Colts or sixth-seeded Chargers, it will be a team that has defeated the Broncos before; if it's the fifth-seeded Chiefs, it's a side that the Broncos edged thanks to a late-game stop after rallying from a 21-7 second-quarter hole.

Compare that to last year, when the Broncos faced Baltimore less than four weeks after eviscerating them in a 34-17 rout that was not as close as the score indicated. An expectation of a similar result when the Broncos had home-field advantage was logical, and ultimately, fallacious.

The Broncos were crushed, mortified, humbled. Any number of descriptions apply along the spectrum of the feel-bad rainbow. You haven't forgotten how you felt after that 38-35 overtime loss. Neither have they.

"I think everybody on our team and in our organization knows if we don’t go out and play our football it will be the same thing as last year," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas. "We don’t want that feeling again.”

In the quest to avoid that feeling, the Broncos might be in better position than they were last year. The seeding is the same; the record is the same. But the Broncos have the experience and growth that came from chastening late-season losses, particularly the 27-20 defeat to San Diego on Dec. 12.

It's the kind of late-season defeat that every recent champion going back to the 2006 Colts has endured, and that's the other reason why Sunday's game mattered: because it gave the Broncos another chance to continue their growth from that day.

The offense rebounded from its scattershot form against San Diego and in the first three quarters against Houston. From the fourth quarter last week until Peyton Manning was pulled at halftime, it racked up 52 points in three quarters, and found third-down alternatives to the healing Wes Welker in Julius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno, making Denver's attack even more dangerous. It also mostly avoided the poorly-timed penalties and first-down breakdowns that turned third-and-makeable situations into third-and-forevers.

The defense found ways to become more aggressive in the pass rush, even without Von Miller. It returned to the blitz-intensive, pressure-from-all-angles approach that it used in Weeks 1-6 -- an approach that worked reasonably well before injuries struck in Week 5, with enough sacks and takeaways to offset the yardage allowed.

Yes, the Broncos rallied against teams that were a combined 6-26, and won't resemble what they will see Jan. 12. But instead of coasting into the postseason, they're on an edge, having been reminded of the consequences of a lackluster effort.

"We're starting to click at the right time," said cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. "We feel a lot more confident and comfortable with the new adjustments that we've made on defense, and we're ready to go for the playoffs."

Sure, the Broncos have injuries. But you will not find a Super Bowl contender that isn't playing without key components. They are as prepared, battle-scarred and tested as any team in this postseason. They've coped with the adversity they largely avoided last year. And they have the jagged emotional edge that comes from postseason scars that have not quite healed.

"We’re very aware of what can happen if you go into the first game not ready," said Bailey. "We’re going to be ready.”