ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – When the Broncos hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round in January, they welcomed a team that had just been involved in one of the more physical games in recent memory.
The Steelers beat the Bengals in a wildcard game that featured 18 penalties for 221 yards, including two 15-yard penalties on Cincinnati late in the contest to keep Pittsburgh's chances alive. As the teams neared the end of the game, players and coaches alike were caught up in the emotion and physicality that has come to typify AFC North battles.
Defensive lineman Billy Winn, who joined the Broncos this year, spent three years in Cleveland among those teams that play "power, downhill, try-to-hit-you-in-the-mouth football," as he put it.
Safety T.J. Ward, who spent four years with the Cleveland Browns before coming to Denver as a free agent in 2014, is another Broncos player who has seen firsthand what went into developing that reputation for the division.
"It's just the players," Ward said. "Just the history of players, the history of coaches. Just that style of play is grimy, it's gritty. You're in bad weather a lot of the time. It's always gloomy and hazy wherever. Whether you're in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati – you've got that corridor where there's not much sunshine, and if there is you better catch it in the summertime. That fall weather, along with that style of play, just kind of ties it all in."
In the eyes of the four Broncos players who used to play in the AFC North, their current team shares some characteristics with the clubs in the Mid-Atlantic. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who spent the first four years of his career playing in Pittsburgh, said the Broncos approach games in a similar manner to the Bengals, Browns, Ravens and Steelers.
"They play just like us," Sanders said. "All of them. From Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – they have our same mindset. Defensively, they're gonna go out and they're gonna lay the wood. They gonna try to hit you hard. They gonna play hard. They're gonna play all the way till the game ends. We've definitely got a battle ahead of ourselves. We've got a war we're getting ready to go into. But a lot of us are used to it, because that's our style of football anyway."
Ward agreed in part with Sanders. For one, whether a team plays an AFC North team or the Broncos, they know they're "in for a physical game." Safety Darian Stewart, who played for the Ravens for a year, agreed with his partner in the defensive backfield.
"It's just always been competitive," Stewart said. "It's a physical [division]. It's always been known for that."
As far as construction of the teams, Ward sees some differences between Denver and their counterparts across the country. AFC North teams, Ward said, have front sevens that are "bigger, heavier, stockier" than what the Broncos trot out on defense. Those teams are "built Ford tough."
The Broncos' roster, though, were assembled to showcase "speed and aggression," Ward said.
While the complexion of the teams may be different, Winn said he sees the same mentality in Denver that he saw in the AFC North.
"I definitely feel that with this team," Winn said. "We've got the guys in here that can on any given day and every single day they just come in here and turn it on no matter what and we have fun doing it."
The Broncos secured a playoff spot in a thrilling overtime win against the Bengals.