DENVER --If a team optimally develops over 16 games, then its shortcomings become strengths. It evolves from one that had one or two ways to win into one that can take any situation and any type of game and make it its own.
The 2013 Denver Broncos will play in Super Bowl XLVIII because they became such a team, and never was that so evident than during Sunday's 26-16 AFC Championship.
The path was not entirely taken by choice. One could re-write the entire plot of this team's six-month epic if players like Von Miller, Champ Bailey, Ryan Clady, Rahim Moore, Chris Harris Jr., Kevin Vickerson and others had not seen their seasons wrecked because of injuries, or, in Miller's case, a torn anterior cruciate ligament that came just over eight games after he completed a six-game suspension.
But some parts of it were voluntary. The re-emphasis on the run when the Broncos strayed too far away during early season games -- that was something Offensive Coordinator Adam Gase insisted upon. And while the Broncos ran more than they passed only once, the Broncos averaged at least four yards per carry in five of their last six regular-season games, and would have done so again the last two weeks if not for end-game kneeldowns.
Gase called it "effective balance" last month. That helps set up the Broncos for long drives, since they can rely on their running game to chew up a few yards here and there, and create the kind of third-and-short situations that helped make the Broncos' third-down offense the league's second-best in the regular season. It has improved in the last two weeks; Sunday's 7-of-13 conversion ratio on third downs brought Denver to 16-of-26 for the postseason.
The manner in which the Chargers defeated the Broncos in Week 15 has now become the way in which Denver's offense powered the Broncos to their first Super Bowl in 15 years.
"That is something that you try to do when you're playing against the Patriots," said quarterback Peyton Manning, who still had more than enough chances to rack up a 400-yard day. "We did a good job on third downs converting. I thought our first- and second-down stuff was good."
Of course, third-down conversions extend drives, cripple the morale of an opposing defense and reduce the window an opposing offense has for a comeback. The Broncos' success there helps explain why their postseason scoring drives have consumed an average of 10.5 plays and 5 minutes, 10 seconds -- 3.0 plays more and 2:07 longer than their average regular-season sprints.
"Usually we score fast but we had a (15)-play drive and I got to the sideline, that's all everybody was talking about," said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas.
This wasn't the way the Broncos expected to win months ago, but was evidence of their progress. Few also expected Terrance Knighton to become the ringleader of the defense, but the free-agent pickup of last March has become the center from which the entire defense flows, particularly since injuries robbed him of many fellow starters.
"He brings a lot to the table. He brings leadership. He commands double-teams on the run. Not too many guys out there can handle him one-on-one," said defensive Robert Ayers.
And he made arguably the biggest play of the game -- and perhaps the season -- by squelching the Patriots' budding comeback with a fourth-and-3 sack of Tom Brady, beating perennial Pro Bowler Logan Mankins in the process.
"This is one of those moments, and T-Knight has been balling all year," said Ayers. "He doesn't get the credit he deserves. He's one of the best inside D-tackles in the league, and he made a big play, and he beat a Pro Bowl guy.
"That's what these games are about: making big plays. T-Knight made a big play, Danny (Trevathan) made a big play, I made a big play, everybody made big plays. That's why we're going on."
It was also a defense that could get pressure when it mattered most, even without Miller. But in the nine-plus games the Broncos have played without Miller, they adjusted; instead of focusing entirely on pressure from the defensive line, particularly from edge rushers, they dialed up blitzes, dropped defensive tackles into coverage -- you saw Mitch Unrein meander back Sunday -- and did everything in their power to prevent opposing quarterbacks from knowing where pressure would originate.
That helped make possible Knighton's thunderous sack, which effectively made a rally nearly impossible. The Broncos continued their predilection for long drives with another march that took more than five minutes and covered 60 yards, and by the time the Patriots got the ball again, they had just 12 minutes and two seconds to make up a 20-point deficit -- not enough time, not even for Brady.
For so long, the Broncos were critiqued for their "Star Wars" numbers. That's what allowed them to make their name early.
But the Broncos have evolved into a team that heads to Super Bowl XLVIII with enough overall substance to win a land war in Asia -- or, better yet, the cold swamp of northern New Jersey.