DENVER --From 35,000 feet, it could look like the Broncos took a straight line to their seventh Super Bowl appearance. They started the season 6-0, finished with the league's best record, set an NFL scoring record and had three losses by a combined 16 points, none by more than seven.
But it doesn't take much of a descent in altitude to see the path was anything but, navigating through obstacles like the suspension of Von Miller and the aortic valve replacement surgery of Head Coach John Fox and a forest of injuries that robbed the Broncos of three Pro Bowlers for a majority of the season.
Just one of those three made it back, and for cornerback Champ Bailey, the path to this point was painful, but ultimately worth it.
"I knew I would come back," said Bailey, who missed 11 games in the regular season. "You might not have known. But I knew I'd be back at some point. My coaches, teammates they never gave up on me. They knew I'd be back to 100 percent at some point."
And Sunday, Bailey was himself. He had a new role, working in the combination outside cornerback/slot cornerback role depending on the personnel grouping that Chris Harris Jr. perfected the last two years. But he was the same Bailey, even showing on a deep attempt to Aaron Dobson in the third quarter that he can keep pace downfield, just like he always has.
"Here I am, I'm playing probably my best football of the year because I haven't played much," Bailey said, with a laugh. "I'm just looking forward to the next one, making sure my body is right for the next game."
Even with Bailey, the team won't have its intended form; that has been assured for months, since Ryan Clady was lost to a Lisfranc injury at MetLife Stadium in Week 2. But the Broncos have a seventh AFC championship, with no asterisk for injury or convalescence or general woe. What didn't kill the Broncos' hopes made them stronger, and after defeating two teams that beat them in the final seven weeks, the Broncos appear at their strongest overall point, even if the point totals haven't matched those of the regular season.
A look at how the three keys to Sunday's game played out:
1. BE THE AGGRESSOR.
This wasn't about fourth-down decisions, and whether the Broncos opted to go for it or take three points via a Matt Prater field goal. It was about decisions like the one to attack Tom Brady on fourth-and-3 and the Patriots already in field-goal range at the Denver 28-yard-line.
The Broncos took a timeout before the play, which at first seemed a curious move, given that it was their second of the half. But the Broncos changed their personnel, inserted defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and prepared to go big and go home.
"We were in a personnel group where we're a little smaller on the ball. We got a little bigger," said Fox.
Bigger -- and better.
"I wasn't going to go in at first. (Sylvester Williams) was going to go in but it was just the moment -- I felt like I needed to be in there," Knighton. "It was a formation that I had seen all week and I knew what type of block I was going to get. I've been practicing, practicing it and I just happened to execute."
Perfect execution was of equal importance when the offense went on the attack. With 9:19 left and a 13-point lead, the Broncos turned away from their long-drive tendency of the previous two quarters and sent Julius Thomas downfield. He had plenty of separation from Patriots linebacker Jamie Collins and easily caught a 37-yard pass that put the Broncos into field-goal range. A deep pass to Demaryius Thomas three plays later was incomplete, but one out of two on those types of passes is enough to justify continued emphasis on the long ball, even when the game situation wouldn't necessarily call for it.
2. SOUND TACKLING.
The Broncos flourished in this area, limiting the Patriots' yardage after receptions and preventing running back LeGarrette Blount from getting any downfield momentum.
Blount had been the focal point of the Patriots' offense in their last two wins over the Bills and Colts. But the Broncos' front seven collectively occupied blockers and filled every gap, preventing him from advancing beyond the line of scrimmage. His five carries gained just six yards, and his longest run was a piddling three yards.
As a team, New England had just 16 yards at halftime, and 39 after three quarters. The Broncos had successfully made them one-dimensional, and even a fourth-quarter surge to 25 yards on three carries was inconsequential.
3. MISTAKE-FREE SPECIAL TEAMS.
The only mistakes involved bounces of punts. Britton Colquitt's only punt of the postseason to date took an odd hop past Omar Bolden and into the end zone, and a Ryan Allen punt after the first possession skipped past Eric Decker, costing the Broncos 20 yards of field position.
But aside from that, the Broncos were clean. Every Matt Prater kickoff was a touchback. Every field-goal attempt sailed between the uprights. No punts or kickoffs were bobbled. No penalties were committed. It wasn't spectacular, but it was the clean game the Broncos' special teams needed.