JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- **The unflappable smile that comes along with being only three days from playing the Super Bowl disappeared from safety David Bruton's face as he revisited a place that now feels far off in the distant past.
"We started off 6-0," Bruton recalled. "Everybody was talking about, 'Oh, you're going to the playoffs.' It was like a 90 percent chance that you're going to the playoffs starting out 6-0."
"To start off 6-0, everybody was super excited thinking we were definitely going to the playoffs," linebacker Wesley Woodyard added.
For the 2009 Broncos, however, the promise of that 6-0 start quickly faded into despair.
"We ended up missing it," Bruton said. "We finished 8-8 and we couldn't win any of the last three games to get in there."
Indeed, the Broncos suffered a pair of four-game losing streaks – the last of which came during the final quarter of the season, which Denver entered holding an 8-4 record – and a campaign that seemed assured to include a postseason run instead ended only in disappointment.
"We beat New England in Denver," he added. "It was a big, big win. We had a few big wins during that 6-0 stretch. And then we just fell apart."
The following year was even more difficult – there was never even a promising start – as the Broncos finished 4-12 and the team endured the midseason termination of then-Head Coach Josh McDaniels.
"Going 4-12, the coach getting fired in the middle of the season – everything that went with that season," guard Zane Beadles said. "I didn't really know any better at the time being a rookie. I just thought this was what the NFL was."
"When you go through two seasons like that," Woodyard added, "Not finishing, or not starting off the way you expect and know you should, it's tough."
On the heels of those two campaigns and with NFL facing a lockout prior to the 2011 season, Bruton found his career at a crossroads of sorts.
"2011 was the year of the lockout," Bruton said. "I was substitute teaching and we had just finished a 4-12 season."
Three years later, they're all a weekend's distance from playing in the first Super Bowl of their careers.
"Man," Woodyard said with a booming laugh. "What do you say? It makes you appreciate this right here much more."
"Pretty crazy," Bruton added.
Bruton, Woodyard and Beadles are three of 12 Broncos on the 53-man roster for Sunday's game who have been with the organization since the start of the 2010 season, including just eight – Bruton, Woodyard, cornerback Champ Bailey, defensive end Robert Ayers, punter Britton Colquitt, guard Chris Kuper, running back Knowshon Moreno and kicker Matt Prater – who were a part of the 2009 squad.
In the span since those two seasons, the Broncos have won 34 regular-season games, three-consecutive AFC West titles and have reached at least the Divisional Round of the playoffs three times. They've won more games than any other NFL team over the past two seasons, broken the league record for scoring in a single season – and on Sunday, they'll play in the seventh Super Bowl in franchise history.
Just a bit of a turnaround.
"Coming from a season like that (2010) to where we're at now, it's very rewarding and it's awesome to be able to say you've been a part of it," Beadles said.
A key part of the Denver resurgence was the arrival of Head Coach John Fox prior to the 2011 season.
"Besides the locker room change, we've got a new coaching staff in here," Woodyard said. "Coach Fox is a great coach who knows how to put the players in the right position, and put the players who know how to lead in the right situation."
The shift was also felt in the front office when the man who quarterbacked the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII championships – Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway – returned to the Broncos organization in 2011. Together, the team's management and coaching staff have assembled a squad over the past three seasons that is intent on now adding a third Super Bowl title.
"They've done a phenomenal job putting a great group of guys together with common goals and common interests," Beadles said. "I don't think it's surprising or anything like that. I think it's a product of hard work and doing the things right to put yourself in a position to be successful."
Woodyard circled the team's first playoff win in six seasons – their 29-23 overtime win over the Steelers in the 2011 Wild Card Round – as a crucial catalyst that helped shift the Broncos' direction by building momentum and an insatiable hunger for more success in the postseason.
"It was huge," he said. "It kept us motivated. I think the thing is, once you get to the postseason, the more and more you're there, the more and more you understand how you have to pick your level of play up and how one play can cause you to lose a game. Everybody is just so much attentive to what they have to do."
Of course, one other figure who has played a rather sizeable role in all that success needs little introduction – quarterback Peyton Manning.
"It definitely turned things around in the right way," Woodyard said regarding Manning, who signed with the team in March 2012. "He's a true professional and he helped everybody's level of play, not just the offense. The defense, special teams, the coaches – everybody, we're on board trying to win."
It's a dynamic, Woodyard said, that has shifted not only on the field, but in the team's camaraderie, as well.
"Our locker room is completely different and it's changed for the best," he said. "Now everybody hangs out – it's like a band of brothers now. We didn't really always have that in the past."
It's a unity that has helped the team weather all the injuries, the unexpected bouts with adversity and the weight of high expectations – from the outside, and the ones they've placed on their own shoulders – and still find their way into Super Bowl XLVIII.
"This year, we had a sense of urgency and a sense of ownership that this is our year to go to the Super Bowl and win it all," Woodyard said. "We've got leaders on this team and they continue to lead every day. That speaks volumes."
"We carry our own burden. We carry our own pressure," Bruton added. "Coach Fox says it all the time, there are two types of pressure – pressure that you feel and pressure you apply. I feel like this season, we've gone about it to apply pressure."
But through all the successes, there is also the unmistakable reminder of just how much was poured into getting here - and just how difficult it was to reach this point – that drives these Broncos to take one final step in their quest on Sunday. Those who have ridden the ups and the downs over the past five seasons are as aware of that as any.
"There are guys who have put in the effort all the time, countless effort, countless hours – in the weight room, on the field, in the film room – who have played numerous years," Bruton said. "Look at Champ – playing for dang-near forever, this is his first one. We definitely know that it's a rare occasion and that it's a true blessing to get to this point."
From 4-12 to one win away from a World Championship in just over a three-year span, it's certainly been a journey to remember for those who have been along for the ride.
"It's just a testament to the guys that are in the locker room who are still trying to fight, still trying to do things the right way," Woodyard said.
"Anytime you're a part of something like this, it's special," Beadles added. "I don't think you fully appreciate it while you're in it, but down the road when I'm done playing and my grandkids don't think I actually played football, it'll be fun to say that I was a part of that."