ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **The stakes could not be any more evident.
For the Broncos and Patriots, it's simple: win in Sunday's AFC Championship Game and earn a place in Super Bowl XLVIII.
But while the opportunity in front of both teams is unmistakable, it is also undeniably precious – the culmination of months and months of unrelenting work, all to reach a stage that is never guaranteed to come around again.
Just ask Wes Welker.
The Broncos wide receiver played in three AFC Championship Games and a pair of Super Bowls during his six seasons in New England, but each time Welker walked away empty-handed at the season's end. With each passing year, Welker's awareness of just how difficult it is to accomplish that final goal grew stronger – something that he has tried to communicate to his younger Broncos teammates.
"I try to tell them about when I went in 2007, we were undefeated and we lost in the end and I was thinking we'll be back next year, and we'll be back the next year and the next year and we are going to win one," Welker said. "You don't realize how hard it is to get there. You've got to appreciate it and seize that moment and you have to take advantage of it."
After all, it's a lengthy road to reach this point – and perhaps an even longer and more unlikely one to return there.
"Injuries happen, free agency happens, all different things happen," Welker said. "The opportunities of getting to this situation are so rare that you've got to seize that moment and take advantage of it."
The number of obstacles both the Broncos and Patriots have had to overcome this season in order to earn a chance to play for a Super Bowl berth also make this opportunity special – something that quarterback Peyton Manning noted on Wednesday.
"We're excited about the opportunity, we've worked hard to get to this point," Manning said. "(Head) 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. Starting way back to the offseason, starting back to maybe last season's playoff loss. It's commendable to the team that we fought through those obstacles and we put ourselves in this position and playing a great football team, AFC Championship."
Now in the home stretch of his 16th NFL season – and only two years removed from missing the entire 2011 NFL season after undergoing surgery on his neck – Manning was quick to emphasize just how much an opportunity like the one in front of the Broncos means to him.
"There is no question that we have come a long way in the two years that I have been here. I have certainly come a long way," Manning said. "A lot of people have helped me and have certainly put a lot of hard work into it and it's very rewarding when you put a lot of hard work and it pays off with the opportunity to play in a game like this. You don't take for granted, especially when you've been through an injury, been through a major change and you're in the home stretch of your career."
And while not taking this opportunity for granted is a point of emphasis, not taking preparing for Sunday's game for granted is even more important – as tight end Julius Thomas pointed out.
"For us, I'm sure they're doing the same thing, but preparing for a tough opponent that's in the way of you advancing to a Super Bowl," Thomas said. "We're going to have to go out here and prepare and we're going to work and we're going to do our best to come out and play at the highest level we can and execute at a high level. We know it's going to be a good game, we know they're a great opponent, so there's that much more focus that you have to be on top of everything."
It's something they've worked toward all season – and, as the Broncos continue their preparations through the week, it's an opportunity that certainly won't be lost on players like wide receiver Eric Decker.
"It's really a dream come true. It's something that, for us, has been a goal since the beginning of our offseason," Decker said. "We came into OTAs, came in talking about what we wanted to do from last year. And we knew we had the capability, we knew we had the guys and the pieces in the locker room to have that."
"And we set ourselves up for that chance," he added. "Now, what are we going to do with it?"