ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --This is what the Broncos have been working toward.
Ever since the team walked out of frigid Sports Authority Field at Mile High last January, fresh off a heartbreaking, double-overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens, the Broncos have been motivated to get back to the playoffs and reverse the outcome.
"I think we've kind of used that throughout the season," quarterback Peyton Manning said. "We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our offseason training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squats, whatever it may be. We've used it on the practice field."
They used it as the team marched to its second consecutive 13-3 season, its second consecutive No. 1 seed in the AFC and its third consecutive AFC West title.
"I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before," Manning continued. "I feel like we've done that and, like I said, we're excited to be at this place right now."
Along the way, the Broncos seemed to set records nearly every week.
The team topped the 40-point mark in a franchise-record six games, and tied an NFL record with three 50-plus-point outings. The team's 606 total points in the 2013 regular season represented a single-season NFL record. The club became the first in league history with five players scoring 10 or more touchdowns. Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas became just the second wide receiver duo in league history to produce 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns each in consecutive seasons, joining Randy Moss and Cris Carter. And Manning had the most prolific regular season of a quarterback in NFL history, setting league records for passing yards (5,477) and passing touchdowns (55).
All that production didn't matter if it didn't contribute to wins. But it did. Thirteen of them, earning the Broncos a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
"To be in this game means you have done something well," Manning said. "It means you've played good football all season, giving yourself an opportunity. Only eight teams left, just four games this weekend – we're excited to be one of them. Glad to be in this tournament and looking forward to getting out there Sunday."
This Sunday brings a rematch with the division-rival San Diego Chargers in the postseason for the first time in the two teams' history.
Denver and San Diego split the regular-season series, but the most-recent contest was a 27-20 Chargers win at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Chargers held the ball for nearly 40 minutes, which almost doubled Denver's time of possession. That strategy, which included three San Diego drives that spanned at least 11 plays and six-and-a-half minutes of game time, helped lead to the win.
Whether the Chargers will try to duplicate that effort on Sunday is yet to be determined.
"You never know how a game is going to play out," Manning said. "Just because something happened the previous game, or two games, doesn't mean it's going to happen again. And so you prepare for the game plan, but you go out, you have to be ready to adjust to a shootout, to a low-scoring game, whatever it may be. You certainly see lots of different types of games here in the postseason. I've always believed that. It's going to be a team effort. All three phases are going to need to contribute – offense, defense and special teams. That is what we're working on getting ready for right now."
That Week 15 game was Denver's last one at home. The team closed the regular season with back-to-back wins on the road in Houston and Oakland.
Tack on the bye week in the first round of the postseason, and it will have been exactly one month in between Broncos home games when the team steps onto the field on Sunday.
"It will be good to get back home and our fans will be excited," Manning said. "We'll need them in an important way – counting on them to be loud. And our players are excited to be back here at home."
The Broncos know they will need to be at their best to move on in the playoffs, and Manning believes that the adversity the team overcame throughout the season -- from injuries to a suspension to even losing their head coach for a month due to heart surgery -- will serve them well in that cause.
"We feel like we've been through a lot during this season in order to get ourselves this opportunity," he said. "You're playing a good football team and it's going to be a good football game. A lot of familiarity between both teams. I would say there is a lot of knowledge amongst both teams. That kind of evens out and kind of comes down to who makes more plays on the field. That is kind of how I know to approach it and that is kind of what I believe about playoff football."
For Manning, this will be his 21st playoff game. With 177 passing yards on Sunday, he can pass Joe Montana and Brett Favre for the second-most passing yards in postseason history.
In all that experience, the quarterback said the way in which he goes about preparing for the games has changed over time.
"It's going to be a great atmosphere on Sunday, playing a good football team, and there is nothing else I would rather be doing than be in that opportunity," he said. "And so that is certainly my goal to enjoy the preparation – not just the game – to actually enjoy the preparation part of it, enjoy being around the guys. Because certainly, the light is at the end of the tunnel for me – no question. And so, I think you enjoy these things maybe even more than maybe you have in the past."
"This is why you have the offseason work, this is why you meet as often as you do in April, May and June – it's for opportunities like this."
As Manning mentioned, last year's Divisional-Round loss to the Ravens has been in the back of their minds as fuel ever since.
But the team isn't necessarily looking back at last year to define what it wants to accomplish now. Manning, in the midst of his 16th year in the NFL, said he believes each season takes on its own identity -- and this one has yet to take its shape.
"This is the 2013 season, 2014 postseason, and it's its own chapter," he said. "We're looking forward to hopefully writing it for a number of more weeks."