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'It's the real deal now'


DENVER -- **And now, the prelude is done.

It's not that the Broncos ever assumed all along that they would be one of the last dozen teams standing as the 2014 postseason began -- although many of their fans did.

But in a season described as "Super Bowl or bust," nothing that happened between September and December was going to define how the year would be remembered, unless events in the NFL's 95th regular season prevented the Broncos from their fourth consecutive playoff appearance.

"It's the real deal now," said cornerback Chris Harris Jr. "Like T-Knight (Terrance Knighton) said, 'Super Bowl or bust.'

"That's what we're playing for. That's the only thing anybody cares about."

And by trouncing the Oakland Raiders 47-14 on Sunday, the Broncos earned their free pass into the second round, securing the No. 2 seed and the bye that goes along with it.

The one-week respite is no guarantee of success. Six of the last nine world champions didn't have a first-round bye, and seven of the last nine Super Bowls included one team that did not have a bye.

But since the current playoff format was introduced in 1990, 36 of the 48 Super Bowl participants received a bye, including both of them last year.

While there are concerns about the loss of rhythm that accompanies a week off, for the 2014 Broncos, they're outweighed by a need to recuperate. Beyond the potential opponents, the single gravest threat to the Broncos' world-championship aspirations is further injuries.

"I mentioned to (radio play-by-play announcer) Dave Logan, 'I'm tired of reading that injury report,'" Head Coach John Fox said. "We have to report all the guys that are getting treatment and we have a long list so hopefully that gets whittled down."

In Week 17, the list ballooned to 21 names after the final addition, Britton Colquitt, who came down with an illness Saturday but recovered in time to punt Sunday.

But the Broncos played Sunday without safety T.J. Ward and linebacker Brandon Marshall, robbing them of one Pro Bowler and another who Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio said this month was playing at a Pro Bowl level. Now they have an extra week -- and a better chance -- to recover from a neck strain and a sprained foot, respectively.

"They will be back. Not a 'better chance.' It's the playoffs," Harris said, laughing. "They've got to play through everything in the playoffs."

"Getting the defense as a whole again, this is what we needed," said defensive end DeMarcus Ware. "And I'm glad it came at the right time."

But the Broncos' litany of injuries grew by the end of Sunday's game when they lost two more players to concussions: left guard Orlando Franklin and safety David Bruton, who was taken to a local hospital via ambulance, but was examined and quickly released.

And their injuries do not encompass the soreness and myriad nicks and bruises that accumulate over 13 consecutive weeks without a break following a Week 4 bye that came too early to serve its intended purpose.

"A Week 4 bye is not necessary when you're still fresh," Knighton said.

"Terrible," interjected Derek Wolfe.

"But that's why you play so hard to earn this bye, so you can get another week off and get some rest," said Knighton. "We did everything we had to do to get our bye this week, and we'll watch and see where our chips fall."

Knighton said the mental rest is the more important aspect of the bye -- "just to get away from it," he said.

But Knighton's mental rest comes with a catch: he will watch next weekend's wild-card games. He will study the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts, all potential opponents for the divisional game at 2:40 p.m. MST on Jan. 11, all capable of stopping the Broncos' march before it reaches even the AFC Championship Game.

It is the study of those potential opponents which reminds Harris that there is no true mental break.

"I'm not taking any mental (rest). I will stay in my mental," he said. "Three teams we're going to have a chance to play: whatever those three teams -- hopefully we've played one of them and already have a big jump on them.

"Mentally, you're always going to have your head in the game -- at least me. But physically, just to get this week off -- especially me, I started all 16 games off an ACL (tear), that was a tough year for me to do that. I definitely need this rest."

And it's necessary before the biggest game to date, the first of what the Broncos hope is a three-game run to succeed where they failed last Feb. 2.

"We expected to be where we are right now at the beginning of the season," said Knighton. "Now it's time to put the words aside, and go out and show with our actions."

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Check out the action from an explosive second half in Denver, where the Broncos coasted to a 47-14 win.


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