ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- **The situation began to take on an eerie sense of familiarity – enough to churn the stomachs of many Broncos fans, and certainly enough to jog the memories of a Broncos team ferociously intent on not allowing a repeat performance.
San Diego had chiseled the Denver lead down to a touchdown with 3:53 remaining, leaving the Broncos with one final possession to either run out the clock or risk turning the ball back over to the Chargers in the game's closing moments – just as they did a year ago, when Baltimore's rally abruptly ended Denver's season.
"That's something that up front we've talked about all year long that if we're in that situation again, we're not going to let what happened last year—we're going to finish with the ball in our hands," guard Zane Beadles said. "I definitely think that played a role in it this year, this time around that we had that mindset that we weren't going to let that happen again."
And they didn't.
The Broncos converted three third downs on the game's final drive – most crucially a 21-yard pass from quarterback Peyton Manning to tight end Julius Thomas on third-and-17 from the Denver 20 – that allowed Denver to run out the clock and advance to the AFC Championship Game. It was the type of poised performance in the clutch that Head Coach John Fox said may have been aided by how the Broncos learned from similar situations in the past.
"I think it helps to have been there before," Fox said. "They talk about golfers—it's important to have the lead going into Sunday so you know how to handle it. I don't know if I buy totally into that, but I think there is some merit to that. It's making plays in critical times in situational football. That's really the difference and the team that does that usually wins those close games and in playoff games, they are typically one-score games."
"It's a huge deal for us, especially—that's something that we focused on all year, going back to the playoff game last year," Beadles added. "That was a situation that we didn't end up doing what we wanted to do in that situation. Being able to do that in this game and finish with the ball in our hands was a huge win for us."
Now, as the Broncos prepare for the challenge of facing the Patriots on an AFC Championship Game stage that the franchise will play on for the first time since January 2006, the team will look to learn from another situation from the past – this one even fresher in their memories.
The team's overtime loss to the Patriots in Week 12 evidenced just how crucial closing out games is not only on the offensive side of the ball, but for the Broncos defense, as well.
"It's definitely a mentality. When you start fast, you've got to finish fast," safety Mike Adams said. "You've got to finish the same way. And it's hard because we're all professional athletes and they're liable to make plays as well. So it's hard to have that mentality for four quarters. But it's doable. We can do it. And that is definitely what it is – a mentality that you've got to continue to have for four quarters to win the game."
"You know it's always going to be a 60-minute fight. It was (against the Chargers)," running back Knowshon Moreno added. "It was never over and we were able to make some big plays. Therefore, we've got to finish. We've just got to play all 60 minutes."
There are, after all, some rather high stakes hanging in the balance when the Broncos and Patriots take the field once again.
"A team like that, that has been behind before and has plenty of comebacks and has had success playing from behind," defensive tackle Terrance Knighton said. "We just have to learn to put teams away and finish."