Broncos accustomed to pulling out wins in tight situations

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As confetti cannons showered the Denver Broncos with a blizzard of orange and blue, Methodist minister Don Bird of Aurora, Colorado, expressed the feelings of so many sweat-drenched, fingernail-nibbling fans.

“I am convinced that Broncos fans are the most well-conditioned fans in the NFL,” Bird wrote on Facebook after Peyton Manning bested Tom Brady in the AFC championship. “Our hearts got a workout with every game but one this season. Who needs the gym?”

The Broncos (14-4) are heading to Super Bowl 50 on the strength of a dizzying defense and opportunistic offense that led Denver to an NFL-record 11 wins by seven points or less, including Sunday’s 20-18 classic against the New England Patriots.

“We never waiver on our faith,” linebacker Brandon Marshall said after Denver denied Brady’s 2-point attempt to tie it with 12 seconds remaining. “We stay strong. We believe. Everybody plays hard. We play fast. We play physical. Four quarters.

“What blowout did we have this year? Maybe the Packers game, that’s it. So, we are used to playing in close games. That’s what we do. We’re used to playing in games that come down to the wire. And we prevail.”

The Broncos’ only breather all season came when Green Bay brought a 6-0 record to Denver in November and left with a 29-10 defeat, the worst outing of Aaron Rodgers‘ brilliant career.

Denver is 11-3 in games decided by seven points or less, and a 12-point win at Detroit was close until David Bruton Jr.’s interception led to a last-minute TD.

The Broncos’ best hope to bring home another Lombardi Trophy to go with the two GM John Elway won during his Hall of Fame playing career might very well be to keep it close against Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

“That kind of has become a theme for us,” coach Gary Kubiak said after Denver’s 23-17 win over Pittsburgh in the divisional round, “to grind and work and just keep ourselves in position to be successful.”

The Broncos just don’t get tight when the games get that way.

Denver’s wins have come by an average of just 6.92 points. Carolina’s average margin of victory is nearly twice that – 13.41 points.

In the 2012 season, the Broncos rolled into the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak in which their average margin of victory was 16.45 points. They promptly lost in double-overtime to Baltimore 38-35 in what was their first close game in three months.

They piled up a record 606 points in 2013 and got shellacked by Seattle in the Super Bowl.

Elway would rather bring the league’s No. 1 defense to the Super Bowl like he’s doing this year than the NFL’s No. 1 offense like he did two years ago.

After that last landslide, Elway signed free agents DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib. The last two drafts, he also selected defenders who slipped down the board in first-round picks Bradley Roby and Shane Ray.

He replaced John Fox with Kubiak, who brought more balance to the offense with a greater emphasis on the ground game as Manning’s passing skills began to diminish at age 39.

The Broncos benefited from the offensive balance, defensive dominance and abundance of tight games.

“I think it helps playing a lot of close games during the course of the season, starting with the very first one against Baltimore,” Manning said. “That was a dog fight, grinder and went down to the last drive. If you can be in a lot of those games and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence and, hey, it’s playoff football.”

When Elway switched coaches last year, he said he wanted to build a team that would go down “kicking and screaming,” after Fox’s teams lost their last game by a cumulative 150-66.

That toughness has been on display all season as they made a habit of winning close games.

“I mean, defense wins championships,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “We’ve had so many games that we’ve had to win in the fourth quarter or 2-point conversion or things like that all season.”

Denver’s model is no longer lighting up scoreboards but grinding it out, hanging around and making big plays at the end.

“The mindset to me is that you know we play for 60 minutes – even though we haven’t consistently played well for 60 minutes – you know our mindset has been there,” Elway said. “And that’s why this team is a tougher team because it’s a mentally tough one.”

This time, it’s Cam Newton and the Panthers bringing the high-octane offense to the Super Bowl and the Broncos sporting the star-studded secondary and ferocious front-seven.

They also bring a bravado borne from having played so many close games.

“Guys really don’t panic,” Harris said. “We’ve been in these situations all season. It’s really prepared us for this time. I think in the past we’ve had a lot of blowouts, we were beating teams by a lot of points and we didn’t ever get in those situations like this. But we’ve been in these situations all year, so it’s normal for us now.

“It doesn’t faze us with the game on the line.”

AP NFL website: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter: http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

Broncos double-digit favorites on Sunday night vs. winless, depleted Giants

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The Denver Broncos head into Sunday night with the largest spread they have had at home after a bye week in at least 25 years. The Broncos are 11.5-point favorites against the winless New York Giants with a 38.5-point total for the Week 6 Sunday Night Football matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Denver is 6-1 straight-up and against the spread in post-bye week games dating back to 2010. There’s a similar long-running trend of Denver being 7-2 SU and ATS in home games following a bye week since 2003. However, this is the first time since 1996 that Denver has been a double-digit favorite in that scenario.

The Giants, which are 0-5 SU and 2-3 ATS, had three wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr., sustain season-ending injuries last week. That has left QB Eli Manning with WR Roger Lewis (15 career catches) and WR Tavarres King as his main outside targets. Slot WR Sterling Shephard (sprained ankle) could be inactive.

While team performances tend to gravitate toward the mean with time, the Giants will need to show something new – with replacement-level personnel – in order to move the ball against a Denver pass defense which allows only 6.2 yards per pass, fifth-best in the NFL.

The Broncos’ top-ranked defense, led by OLB Von Miller, is also first in run defense and has every starter healthy. While NFC teams are a combined 1-10 SU on the road against Denver since 2012, the Giants are a solid 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games against the AFC.

Denver, 3-1 SU and 2-1-1 ATS, has been quietly efficient on offense. The Broncos, with QB Trevor Siemian, are in the middle of the NFL pack in yards per pass, but they are facing a Giants secondary that is minus CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (suspension) and has also had inconsistent play from CB Eli Apple.

Denver, 7-2 ATS over its last nine home games in October, has been good at opening holes for the tandem of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, who are each capable of making things happen in the open field if the tackling gets sloppy. New York also won’t have DT Olivier Vernon drawing double teams up front and keeping blockers off MLB Damon Harrison.

Unless the Broncos stop themselves, they should be able to grind out a workmanlike win.

The total has gone over in three of the Giants’ last four games against the Broncos, according to the OddsShark NFL Database. The total has gone over in six of the Broncos’ last seven games as a favorite of 11.0 points or more.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Watch Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks live on NBC

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The Seattle Seahawks host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to get back to .500.

Russell Wilson will be the focal point of the Seahawks offense after throwing for a career-high 373 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort vs. the Titans in Week 3. Wilson’s ability to avoid the rush and use his legs will be on full display as Seattle’s offensive line continues to struggle.

On the defensive side, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” will look to get back on track at home in a raucous environment against Colts QB Jacoby Brissett who is filling in for an injured Andrew Luck.

If the Colts have any chance to pull off the upset on the road, Brissett will have to use his legs and connect on some deep throws to T.Y. Hilton.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Colts vs. Seahawks

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app