Broncos, Manning look to avoid upset

Pressure is on top AFC team

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — More than 15 years later, the words “Jacksonville Jaguars” still hit like a cold splash of water around Denver, especially during playoff time.

The Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning will face Baltimore Saturday. Denver will try to avoid an upset similar to its 1997 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Broncos and quarterback Peyton Manning will face Baltimore Saturday. Denver will try to avoid an upset similar to its 1997 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

And if you want to bring back bad memories for Peyton Manning, ask him about what happened against Pittsburgh in 2006.

In both instances, the Broncos and Manning roared into the AFC playoffs with top seeding, a week of rest after a bye and the honor of being the odds-on favorite to make the Super Bowl.

In both instances, the Broncos and Manning were unceremoniously dumped, at home, by a team that came into the game as a touchdown-plus underdog.

Which brings up a good question this week in Denver: Does the team that comes into the divisional round fresh off the bye week (Denver) have an edge over the team that comes in off a victory the week before (Baltimore)?

Dating to Denver’s upset loss in the 1996 playoffs, the top-seeded AFC team has made the Super Bowl only six of 16 times.

“If you look back, at least in recent history, sometimes it can be an advantage,” said Broncos coach John Fox, who lost after a bye week when he was with Carolina in 2008. “But it comes down to, forget about rest, forget about seeds, forget about who you play, when, where. It’s going to be who plays the best Saturday afternoon.”

On Jan. 4, 1997, the Broncos did not play best.

In their first meaningful game in a month, the Broncos shot out to a quick 12-0 lead. The rest, as any longtime Denver fan will recall it, was a nightmare. Mark Brunell threw for 245 yards and the Jaguars went up 23-12. John Elway tried to engineer a comeback but came up short. Jacksonville won 30-27.

“Everything was just so ideal,” Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said after the loss. “And to have it slip away – this sets the organization back four years, at least. It’s going to be the year 2000 before we can ever recover from this.”

It didn’t take long for the Broncos to rebound; they won the next two Super Bowls.

Manning rebounded from his 2005 loss to win the Super Bowl the next season.

But at the time they happened, both losses were as devastating as they were unexpected.

Going into the game against the Steelers on Jan. 15, 2006, Manning was already brandishing a reputation as one of the greats of the game, albeit with a playoff resume still very much in question. Tom Brady had ousted him twice and he had a 3-5 record in the postseason.

The Colts started that season 13-0 and played the last three weeks under similar circumstances as the ‘96 Broncos — trying to stay sharp while not putting their stars at risk.

Manning played one quarter of the 15th game and one series of the last game, which ended when he got sacked and lost a fumble after being hit by Arizona’s Chike Okeafor.

Manning returned two weeks later and got sacked five times in a 21-18 loss to the Steelers. That result left the 2005 Broncos with home-field advantage for the AFC title game — the last time Denver has been that far in the playoffs — but the Steelers beat them, as well.

“That brings back bad memories,” said Brandon Stokley, the Broncos receiver who played with Manning in Indianapolis in 2005. “We just didn’t play a good game. We had the bye. We kind of shut it down toward the end of the season and came out flat and that’s what happens.”

Part by plan and part because they had no other choice, the 2012-13 Broncos have not shut down a thing all season.

Because they were busy holding off Baltimore, leapfrogging New England, then pursuing Houston for the top seed in the AFC, the Broncos had to play all their players through the final game of the year before sealing the top spot.

Once they got it, Fox designed the bye-week schedule to keep his team very much engaged. He called for three practices during the week and a mandatory weightlifting session on Saturday, designed as much for the work in the weight room as for what it prevented — namely, players using their days off to hop a flight to Las Vegas or some other focus-detracting locale.

On Saturday, they find out if it was worth it. The Broncos head into the week as a nine-point favorite.

“I like the way we approached it,” Stokley said. “We played every game. We played every play. The bye week, we worked hard. I like this mindset. I feel a lot better about it than I did in Indy.”

Notes: Broncos CB Champ Bailey and OL Ryan Clady were named to the USA Football All-Fundamentals team Monday. ... Denver’s only other playoff meeting with the Ravens was a 21-3 loss in Baltimore in the wildcard round. The Ravens won the Super Bowl that year. ... Fox on whether the team had confidence in PR/KR Trindon Holliday, who has been prone to fumbling this season and is recovering from an ankle injury: “He’s on our 53-man roster and he’s been our starting punt returner and kick returner for some time. So I guess the answer to that would be yes.”


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