ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – It couldn't have been more than 60 seconds after the No. 6-seeded Steelers wrapped up their upset of the top-seeded Colts in the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoffs that my phone buzzed with this message from a friend who was also on the Broncos beat back then:
"Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."
I replied in agreement. My feeling was exactly the same.
When Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt sliced a game-tying 56-yard field-goal attempt wide with 28 seconds remaining, you could feel the sense of relief coming from many Broncos fans. Their team would avoid a trip to Indianapolis, where the Broncos' last two seasons had ended in playoff losses by a combined score of 90-34, and they would play the AFC Championship at home, where the Broncos had won 11 consecutive games.
Of course, the Steelers were 15-3 in their previous 18 road games and roared into Denver on a six-game winning streak, which became eight games after a 34-17 AFC Championship Game win over Denver and a 21-10 Super Bowl XL triumph over Seattle.
But the Steelers' sprint into the championship game, didn't stop a sense of overconfidence from seeping into Colorado. Nor did a pedestrian 8-8 mark for conference-championship hosts in the previous eight seasons dating back to the Packers and Broncos' road sweep of the 49ers and Steelers, respectively, on Jan. 18, 1998.
"Pittsburgh came to us, and everybody was excited about that," Smith recalled, "and I was like, 'No. You've got to go play. It's not about being excited about playing at home. It has nothing to do with that. You've got a football game. You can't worry about all the other stuff.'"
That mentality permeated corners of the locker room, as well.
"Honestly, I saw a lot of our younger guys kind of got lost in the fact that we had a home game, instead of getting lost in the fact of getting in that playbook, being focused, being disciplined on the things that we need to do as a team," Smith said.
Still, defeat seemed the last thing possible at kickoff earlier on a bright, sunny afternoon. At that moment, 76,775 onlookers twirled their towels -- although more than a few yellow "Terrible Towels" were interspersed with the orange ones given away to fans.
The stadium throbbed with enthusiasm. The sky was an azure blue that could have inspired another round of "God is a Broncos fan" bumper stickers. The sight was gorgeous: a photographer's dream. The sound was deafening: a visiting quarterback's nightmare. It is a picture that remains seared into my consciousness, as it always will.
Then the game began, and everything that worked so well in the previous 17 games fell apart. Potential interceptions were dropped. Blocks were missed. Among the onlookers, surprise became discomfort; later, discomfort transformed into shock.
And just when it seemed it couldn't get any worse -- after a Jerome Bettis touchdown to make the score 17-3 with 1:55 left in the first half -- it did. Ike Taylor intercepted Jake Plummer's pass for tight end Stephen Alexander. The Steelers scored four plays later, and a lead that was just 10-3 at the two-minute warning had ballooned to 24-3 at halftime.
Denver never drew closer than 10 points after that.
"We didn't play well, and we lost," Smith succinctly said.
Smith had two world championship rings, so he and others had past success on which they could linger in the future years. Most on that Broncos team did not, including Champ Bailey, who enjoyed an MVP-caliber season, but saw it end one game short of the Super Bowl.
Until now, Bailey had never been that close again. Shadows covered the stadium by the time Ben Roethlisberger crossed the goal line with the game-sealing 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
What we didn't know then -- but seems obvious in retrospect -- is that the growing darkness was a metaphor for what was to come: five years of declining returns and performance. Stalwarts dating back to the world title years, like Smith, Matt Lepsis and Tom Nalen, got injured over the following years and eventually retired. Free-agent acquisitions didn't pan out as expected. Two head coaches were dismissed.
Bailey saw it all -- and stayed around long enough for the rebirth of the past three years, which began with John Elway's return as executive vice president and John Fox's arrival as head coach. He re-signed with the team in 2011, less than two months after a 4-12 season that was the club's worst in four decades.
Now, Bailey is the only link to that afternoon eight years ago, one that remains as regrettable as it was unforgettable.
"We had some up-and-down years, but that is the reason why, when my contract was up -- the time before this one -- there was no doubt I wanted to be back here," Bailey said. "Because this organization is about winning so it wasn't going to take long until we got back to it. I feel good about what I did and definitely glad I'm still here."
Bailey, Broncos fans and former players like Rod Smith waited out the lean years, longing for another opportunity like the one of eight years ago. It's here now, but is perceived differently: the Patriots are the sport's most accomplished team this century, and the Broncos are hardened by a year of obstacles and injuries, and the memory of last year's divisional-round loss to Baltimore.
"Last year was hard. It was hard for me," Smith said. "Honestly, as a player and being in that situation, I left the stadium, and my stomach hurt bad -- like somebody just took about 15 running starts and just punched me in the gut.
"Some of the guys weren't here, so the good thing is they don't feel that pain, but the ones who did, I can promise you they're out there right now, dialed in, laser-focused, so the new guys will come and say, 'Oh, I've got to be on my game, because I don't want to feel what they felt.'"
And they don't want to feel what the Broncos felt eight years ago, when an opportunity was lost, not to be regained again for nearly a decade.
The Broncos have taken the first step: their mindset is completely different than it was in January 2006.This time, nobody in Colorado has to say, "Be careful what you wish for," not with the quarterback and head coach responsible for five Super Bowl trips standing on the east sideline.