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