ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – Before his whirlybird spin in the air forever etched him in NFL lore, two-time Super Bowl champion John Elway called his mother on the team flight from Pittsburgh after winning the AFC championship on Jan. 11, 1998.
“I said, ‘Mom, guess what? We get to go back to the Super Bowl!” Elway recounted. “She said, ‘Do we really have to go back?”
After so many Super Bowl letdowns – three losses by an average of 32 points – she wasn’t sure watching her son face the two-touchdown favorite Green Bay Packers was such a good idea.
Many Denver fans are similarly pensive as these Broncos (14-4) prepare to face Cam Newton and the mighty Carolina Panthers (17-1) in Super Bowl 50 as five-point underdogs.
They swear they’ve learned their lessons, however, after getting shellacked by Seattle 43-8 in the Super Bowl two years ago.
They won’t be beating each other up this time in full-pads practices in the lead-up to the Feb. 7 kickoff.
They’re praising their opponents aplenty – a lot like the Broncos talked up the Packers 18 years ago.
They won’t be soaking in the nightlife quite so full throttle once they get to San Francisco on Sunday.
They’ll certainly prepare for a loud crowd this time after former coach John Fox famously turned down the speakers at practices figuring it would be like a home game only to see that plan ripped apart in all of 12 seconds.
Players and coaches have already taken care of tickets and flights for family and friends and all the distractions that go with the Super Bowl so when they return to work Thursday their focus is on football.
“We got spanked last time. I felt bad for a month and a-half, two months,” said wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, the lone bright spot that night in the Meadowlands when Seattle’s sideline-to-sideline supremacy rendered his Super Bowl-record 13 receptions a footnote.
“He played great,” Elway said in the aftermath of that blowout. “If we all played like he did, we’d have won.”
Elway was asked after the last Super Bowl letdown how long it took him to get over his three Super Bowl losses.
“I’m not over them yet,” he shot back. “I just added this one to it.”
Elway remade his team after its 35-point loss to the Seahawks. He committed $109.5 million by adding free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward. The trio has helped turn Denver from an offensive juggernaut that had scored an NFL record 606 points behind Peyton Manning’s record-breaking run in 2013 into a defensive team.
Two years after taking the league’s No. 1 offense to the Super Bowl, the Broncos bring the NFL’s No. 1 defense, one that battered Tom Brady with an incredible 23 hits Sunday.
The Broncos also changed their offensive identity this season with the hiring of coach Gary Kubiak, who installed a better ground game and a plan for Manning to share snaps with Brock Osweiler in practice.
The plan came in handy when Manning missed six weeks with a foot injury and Osweiler kept the Broncos rolling right along. And the ground game finally came on behind a new O-line in Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme.
Even though it’s been inconsistent, “I like what we’re doing offensively,” Elway said. “I like the system, obviously, having played in it and knowing that you can win world championships with it.”
Elway changed coaches a year ago, befuddled by Fox’s teams losing their last game by a cumulative 150-66. He said he wanted a team that would “go down kicking and screaming.”
That toughness has been on display all season.
Denver’s model is no longer lighting up scoreboards but grinding it out, hanging around and making big plays at the end. It’s a formula that’s seen them win an NFL record 11 games by seven points or less, including 23-16 over Pittsburgh and 20-18 over New England in the playoffs.
“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. And that’s why this team is a tougher team because it’s a mentally tough one,” Elway said.
This time, it’s 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’re hoping this dynamic makes a difference – and like the Broncos teams of ‘98 and ‘99 they’ll make their nervous mothers proud.
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