DENVER --Third down. Four-minute offense. Seven-point lead. Broncos moving toward the south end zone, near midfield, trying to get enough first downs to run out the clock.
If you watched Sunday's 24-17 divisional playoff win over the San Diego Chargers and had a flashback to exactly one year ago today, you weren't the only one. You also shared an emotion with some of Denver's players.
Not everyone would confess to having their minds replay the final moments of regulation from last year, when the Broncos could not get the final first down they needed to run out the clock, giving the Ravens one last chance, which they seized after a late defensive letdown. But some saw the memories return.
"That was definitely in the back of our minds," said defensive end Malik Jackson. "As the fourth quarter started coming and they were coming, a few guys kind of started thinking about a little flashback."
"But we hung in there, we had great play from our defensive backs and linebackers, and we got it through."
The suspense ended bit by bit -- first, with Julius Thomas' consecutive third-down receptions, and finally with a 5-yard Knowshon Moreno jaunt on third-and-1 that sent nearly all of the 76,902 fans home jubilant.
"We go over that every Thursday: the four-minute offense," said safety Mike Adams. "And they executed it well. I was just so happy, man, and relieved. They definitely got it done."
It was the final act of a game that the Broncos seemed to have won earlier, in large part because they controlled the pace, which brings us back to the three keys to the game, noted in this space Sunday morning.
1. LIMIT THE LENGTH OF SAN DIEGO'S POSSESSIONS.
An early third-down stop after six plays evaporated when Jackson was called for a face-mask penalty after his hand grazed the face mask of Chargers running back Danny Woodhead. But instead of allowing that to rattle them, the Broncos quickly regrouped. Shaun Phillips sacked Philip Rivers two plays later, and the Chargers punted two snaps after that, having only drained two minutes, eight seconds more from the clock -- less than one-third of the time that passed after a penalty on a punt wiped out what would have been a crucial three-and-out against San Diego in the third quarter of that 27-20 loss.
The defense's response was the most illuminating sign that Sunday's game would be different. It continued to the next four non-kneeldown possessions, when the Chargers ran just 20 plays and did not score. They mustered just three third downs on these series, and only crossed midfield on a drive where they earned possession at their 44-yard-line following the replay-reviewed strip-fumble of Julius Thomas.
Only a fourth-quarter surge changed the tenor of the game, but that came when San Diego abandoned its strategy in favor of quick strikes. But San Diego never had a possession that took double-digit plays, and after their first series, never kept the football for longer than three minutes, 16 seconds. Denver's offense never sat idle as a result, and the game was in the Broncos' hands.
2. CLEAN UP SPECIAL TEAMS.
The Broncos looked to be doing just fine in this area until the fourth quarter, when an illegal block in the back nullified a potential 104-yard kickoff return by Trindon Holliday and Eric Decker lost his grip on an on-side kickoff after leaping to gain possession, allowing the Chargers an extra series that ended in the field goal that narrowed Denver's lead back to seven points.
But Decker's play can be chalked up to the randomness and chaotic nature of the on-side kickoff, and isn't necessarily cause for concern. His return to full-time punt return duties also came close to resulting in a touchdown, although it was an "invisible fence," as he said, that stopped his return at 47 yards.
Holliday didn't have an explosive return stand up on the stat sheet, but he alertly fielded a pooched kickoff and sprinted out of bounds to prevent any further damage, setting the offense up for its successful four-minute drill.
It wasn't perfect, but the positives outweighed the negatives for the special teams, which is the step forward the unit needed after a frustrating six weeks to close the regular season.
3. "PLAY YOUR GAME."
The league's best offense in the regular season didn't get that way with the assistance of short fields and big plays. Although it had them from time to time, it also proved capable of mounting long drives, with 17 scoring drives that took at least 10 plays over the last seven games of the regular season.
Like the running game that emerged late in the season, the Broncos had the ability to dink and dunk their way down the field and sustain long drives. But Sunday's performance was arguably their best in this regard. Seven of Denver's eight possessions lasted at least seven plays. Three of the eight took at least 10 snaps, including the final drive that sallied the win. And the only drive that didn't see multiple first downs was the one that ended in Julius Thomas' fumble.
Denver averaged 3.25 first downs per possession. The Chargers averaged exactly half that: 1.625 per series. It wasn't the Broncos playing the kind of game that they knew best, but by turning the tables on the Chargers and building up advantages in long drives and time of possession, they added another tool to an offensive chest that is now overstuffed with handy items.