DENVER -- In the playoffs, the result always trumps process.
So as the Broncos' once-sturdy lead wavered in the building chill of Sports Authority Field at Mile High late Sunday afternoon, there was no thought of how losing 10 points of a 17-point advantage would lead to the usual questions and examinations in the film room, nor even of how the experience might help the Broncos get better.
The only motivation was survival. No one particularly cared how it happened -- whether it took the offense converting third-and-longs, or the defense successfully gambling on blitzes, or a takeaway.
Survive and advance. It was a phrase coined by the late college basketball coach Jim Valvano in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, but it applies to the NFL just the same, given the one-and-done nature of both postseasons. One bad day, and your season ends, something the Broncos knew and heeded from their experience last year.
It didn't matter how it happened, or who delivered it. What the Broncos needed was a big play.
In the end, the gateway to the 24-17 win over the Chargers was the third-down offense, which struggled in their Week 15 loss without Wes Welker but was devastatingly efficient Sunday, moving the chains nine times in 13 attempts. Most were from third-and-moderate-yardage, but the key play of the final series appeared to be anything but: a third-and-17 from the Denver 20-yard-line with 3:06 remaining.
San Diego still had two timeouts, so a Broncos run would have meant they would be down to one stoppage. But with so much time on the clock, the Chargers could have had the football at their own 1-yard-line after a punt and been able to have their full playbook at their disposal. It was not a time to be timid, especially when the chances of reaching the Denver 37 with a clock-chewing run seemed remote, at best.
"Certainly it was a no-brainer there, what you had to do," said quarterback Peyton Manning.
It was a pass to tight end Julius Thomas, whose day had been marred by a fumble, a drop and a false start. It was not an individual performance to savor, although it was another valuable educational experience for him.
But when Manning's pass sailed toward Thomas, who was near the west sideline, all the frustration of the fourth quarter didn't matter. Nor did the eventual application of the lessons to come, part of the process of becoming an elite tight end.
Ten months of work rested on the throw, the catch, and Thomas' ability to get both feet in-bounds. Check, check and check. Another catch by Thomas on the following third down virtually sealed the game.
"(It was a) great play call by [Offensive Coordinator] Adam [Gase]," said Manning. "It really was a big-time play call. Got them in the right look and a good catch by Julius."
But once the result was achieved, it was back to the process. They got the win to preserve their season for at least one more week, and a few issues to fix that will prevent even the faintest of complacency from setting in.
The offense will focus on the two giveaways in San Diego territory that prevented the Broncos from putting the game out of reach by halftime. The defense will examine a fourth quarter in which the Chargers got away from their game plan -- but scored 17 points, averaged 10.0 yards per play and came within the two Thomas catches of having the chance to drive for the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL postseason history.
"We're going to look at the fourth quarter. We've got to play 60 minutes," said defensive lineman Malik Jackson. "You can't expect to win a game closing out that kind of fashion, especially when a team might be hanging in there with us."
"We made some mental errors," added cornerback Quentin Jammer.
Jammer, the 12-year veteran, felt the worst about the fourth-quarter decline. After taking over for Chris Harris Jr. following the third-year cornerback's ankle and knee injury, Jammer found himself beaten for a 16-yard touchdown and the Chargers' two longest plays of the game.
"Myself, I made mental errors that led to three big plays," Jammer said.
The one that bothered him most was the 49-yard Philip Rivers-to-Keenan Allen connection on fourth-and-3 with 7:38 left. At that moment, the Broncos led by 17, the crowd was roaring, sensing a chance for the final knockdown blow, and the Chargers had put their fading hopes on one play.
As a seasoned veteran and nine-season teammate of Rivers, Jammer thought he knew what the quarterback would do -- especially given the windy conditions, with breezes gusting over 30 miles per hour at times.
"I over-thought everything," said Jammer, who added that he "sat" on Allen's route. "And me being a veteran player, it's fourth-and-3, going against the wind, I'm thinking, 'a curl (route),' just something to get the first down and keep the chains moving, and I let the guy run right by me."
If Harris' injury is minor, Jammer will be one of the players called on for more extensive duty. His task would then be to ensure a quarter like the fourth does not happen again.
"There's a lot that we can clean up, and there's a lot that I need to clean up," he said.
But thanks to his teammates, he has that chance. To survive and advance does not simply mean that you move one step closer to the primary goal. It means you have one more chance to get it right.
And that's why when the Broncos racked up a final hat trick of third-down conversions, Jammer greeted the win with a low-key reaction.
"Relief," Jammer said, with a smile. "When you give up a couple of big plays in a game, you're just hoping that you get another shot to go out and prove that you belong. That's my mindset."
It was a sentiment shared in the locker room after the Broncos earned what they wanted: one more chance to get it right. One more win to get to the Super Bowl.
Twenty-eight teams pine for what the Broncos now possess: another opportunity to refine their process to achieve the result of their dreams.
They survived and advanced. But getting the result they want next week may depend on the process, and how they apply Sunday's lessons toward a showdown with the Patriots.