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.”

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

Eagles fly to first Super Bowl win with memorable victory vs Patriots

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As their delirious fans sang their theme song and their owner lifted the Lombardi Trophy, the Philadelphia Eagles’ finally could breathe freely.

Yo, Philly, you really did beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in a thrilling Super Bowl that rewrote the offensive record book.

Nick Foles guided the drive of a lifetime, Zach Ertz made a bobbling touchdown catch that had to survive replay review, and an exhausted defense came up with not one but two stands in the final moments Sunday for a 41-33 victory. For the first time since 1960, the Eagles are NFL champions.

“Fly Eagles Fly,” indeed.

“We’ve played this game since we were little kids, we dreamed about this moment,” game MVP Foles said. “There’s plenty of kids watching this game right now dreaming about this moment and someday will be here.”

In a record-setting shootout between backup QB Foles and five-time champ Brady of the favored Patriots, Foles led a pressure-packed 75-yard drive to the winning touchdown, 11 yards to Ertz with 2:21 to go .

Then Brandon Graham strip-sacked Brady and Derek Barnett recovered, setting up rookie Jake Elliot’s 46-yard field goal for an 8-point lead.

Brady got his team to midfield, but his desperation pass fell to the ground in the end zone.

“For us, it was all about one stop we had to make. We went out here and made that one stop,” Graham said.

The underdog Eagles (16-3), even injured starting quarterback Carson Wentz, came bolting off the sideline in ecstasy while Brady sat on the ground, disconsolate.

It was the first Super Bowl title for Philadelphia (16-3), which went from 7-9 last season.

“If there’s a word (it’s) called everything,” Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said. “That’s what it means to Eagles fans everywhere. And for Eagles fans everywhere, this is for them.”

Super Bowl MVP Foles orchestrated the victory with the kind of drive NFL MVP Brady, a five-time champion, is known for. The drive covered 14 plays, including a fourth-down conversion.

“I felt calm. I mean, we have such a great group of guys, such a great coaching staff,” Foles said. “We felt confident coming in, and we just went out there and played football.”

The Eagles had to survive a video replay because ball pop into the air as Ertz crossed the goal line.

The touchdown stood — and so did thousands of green-clad Eagles fans who weren’t going to mind the frigid conditions outside US Bank Stadium once they headed out to celebrate. But not before a rousing rendition of “Fly Eagles Fly” reverberated throughout the stands once the trophy was presented to Lurie. Later, fans danced along with the “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from “Rocky,” the city’s best-known fictional underdog.

The Patriots (15-4) seemed ready to take their sixth championship with Brady and coach Bill Belichick in eight Super Bowls. Brady threw for a game-record 505 yards and three TDs, hitting Rob Gronkowski for 4 yards before Stephen Gostkowski’s extra point gave New England its first lead, 33-32.

Then Foles made them forget Wentz — and least for now — with the gutsiest drive of his life.

“We couldn’t make a play to give the ball back to the offense,” Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore said.

Foles has been something of a journeyman in his six pro seasons, but he has been spectacular in four career playoff games. He finished 28 of 43 for 373 yards and three TDs.

The combined 1,151 yards were the most in any modern NFL game, and Brady’s 505 were the most in any playoff contest. The 40-year-old master finished 28 of 48 and picked apart the Eagles until the final two series.

It was such a wild game that Foles caught a touchdown pass , and Brady was on the opposite end of a Danny Amendola throw that went off his fingertips.

Eagles coach Doug Pederson brought home the championship in his second year in charge. Belichick is 5-3 in Super Bowls and his teams have only a plus-4 overall margin in those games.

So this one was in keeping with that trend: breathtaking and even a bit bizarre.

Brady and the Patriots looked ready for another comeback by opening the second half with a 75-yard touchdown drive. Gronkowski was unstoppable, grabbing four passes for 69 yards, including the 5-yard score.

Philly didn’t flinch, answering with a precise 75-yard march and three more third-down conversions; the Eagles were 10 for 16. The last was on Foles’ perfect pass to Clement over double coverage. The rookie’s reception was upheld by review, and the Eagles were back on top by 10.

Brady shrugged and, getting steadfast protection, connected with Chris Hogan from the 26 for another touchdown.

When all the Eagles could manage was Elliott’s 42-yarder for a 32-26 lead, it seemed inevitable the Patriots would go in front, then become the first repeat Super Bowl winner since they did it in the 2004 and ’05 games.

Foles, Ertz, and — at last — a revitalized defense said otherwise.

The weird image of Brady ambling downfield on a pass pattern came three plays after New England lost receiver Brandin Cooks to a concussion on a vicious but clean hit by Malcolm Jenkins in the second quarter. Amendola’s pass required an over-the-shoulder grab and the ball fell off Brady’s outstretched hands.

Brady got back to passing after a wild interception. Alshon Jeffery nearly made a spectacular catch near the Patriots’ goal line, only to juggle the ball into the air. Duron Harmon picked it off at the 10. Moments later, Brady was connecting with Chris Hogan for 42 yards.

James White broke several tackles with a brilliant 26-yard run and it was 15-12. That gave White seven touchdowns in his past three postseason games, including the overtime winner in last year’s Super Bowl.

But the Eagles still had 2:04 left in the half — and some more magic in their bag.

A short third-down throw to rookie Corey Clement on a circle route turned into a 55-yard explosion down to the Patriots 8. Philly got to the 1 and on fourth down, it was Foles’ turn to morph into a receiver.

He did better than Brady. On fourth down, Clement took a direct snap, pitched to tight end Trey Burton, and the former Florida QB hit an uncovered Foles. The Eagles were up 22-12 at halftime, the most points New England has allowed in the opening half of a Super Bowl under Belichick.

Each team started with 67-yard drives to field goals — New England had never scored a first-quarter point with Brady in a Super Bowl.

Each kicker later faltered, with Elliott missing the extra point, his fifth failed PAT this season, after Jeffery’s 34-yard touchdown. Then Gostkowski hit the left upright with a 26-yard field goal after holder Ryan Allen mishandled the snap. Gostkowski also missed an extra point.

When LeGarrette Blount, who won the title last season with the Patriots, scored on a 21-yard burst, Pederson went for 2, but the pass failed, making it 15-3.

The Eagles and Pederson brushed it off and stayed with their usual aggressive approach. Breathtakingly, it eventually paid off.

Eagles’ rush could be key vs. Patriots’ Brady

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MINNEAPOLIS — Neither New England nor Philadelphia is a tropical paradise, so for the Patriots and Eagles, the Minnesota winter weather has been pretty normal for them. That’s a good thing as both teams head into their Super Bowl LII meeting on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium trying to treat it like just another 60-minute game.

After the media circus they endured Monday in St. Paul, the players for both the Patriots (15-3) and the Eagles (15-3) welcomed the opportunity to get back to some semblance of normal game week preparation and to focus on the football, even if it’s in a new place.

“We’ve got to go out and practice and kind of get away from the madness,” said Philadelphia defensive end Fletcher Cox on Wednesday after the Eagles practiced at the University of Minnesota. “I just treat it as a regular game week. Things I would do at the facility, I’m doing here.”

Road to Super Bowl LII: Stream, start time, highlights and more

One thing the Eagles did successfully at home and on the road all season was pressure the opponent’s quarterback, and when the Patriots have faltered in two Super Bowl losses to the Giants in the past decade, a relentless pass rush has contributed. But the highly touted Eagles defense, which did not allow a point after the Vikings’ opening drive of the NFC title game, is wary about putting too much of their attention on Patriots star Tom Brady.

“It’s Tom plus 10 guys on the field. We can’t just focus on one guy, if we’re going to be real about it,” Cox said. “I think we have to focus on their whole offense, because they’ve got a lot of great players. We have to go out and be ourselves. We’ve got to go out and do the little things right and not beat ourselves in order to be victorious.”

New England tight end Rob Gronkowski, who missed the second half of the AFC title game win over Jacksonville due to a concussion, is slated to play.

“Rob’s a tough guy. Obviously, this isn’t something you can just fight through,” said Brady.

While the Patriots offense has revolved around Brady since their first Super Bowl win in 2002, the defense has been one of constant evolution, and the unit adopted yet another new look late in the regular season when linebacker James Harrison came on board after he was jettisoned by the Steelers.

“When you’re in a system for as long as he’s been, there are a lot of things that are habits that get ingrained, which they should be. Some of those things carry over. Some of them kind of don’t,” Belichick said of Harrison, who has played 178 of his 193 NFL regular-season games for Pittsburgh. “He’s done a great job of trying to separate them and do what we’ve asked him to do.”

While the Eagles will be looking for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title, having lost the big game after the 1980 and 2004 seasons, there may be more pressure on the Patriots, who will be seeking their sixth title and their second in a row, knowing that the coaching staff will look significantly different next season. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are both widely expected to be head coaches in Indianapolis and Detroit, respectively, next season.

“I realize and I understand and I appreciate the talent in the coaches in our building. I’m grateful for the opportunity to even be coached by them,” said Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola, sounding very much like he was saying goodbye. “Whatever their opportunities are in the future, I’ll be excited for them.”

There’s one more opportunity for them on Sunday. And it sounds plenty exciting.