|9/15||at N.Y. Giants||41-23|
|10/6||at Dallas Cowboys||51-48|
|10/20||at Indianapolis Colts||33-39|
|11/10||at San Diego Chargers||28-20|
|11/17||Kansas City Chiefs||27-17|
|11/24||at New England Patriots||31-34|
|12/1||at Kansas City Chiefs||35-28|
|12/12||San Diego Chargers||20-27|
|12/22||at Houston Texans||37-13|
|12/29||at Oakland Raiders34-14||w|
|1/12||San Diego Chargers (AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF)||24-17|
|1/19||New England Patriots (AFC CHAMPIONSHIP)||26-16|
|2/2||Seattle Seahawks (SUPER BOWL XLVIII)||8-43|
A YEAR FOR THE RECORD BOOKS
Peyton Manning is as consistent in his statements as he was in his play during his 18 NFL seasons. Throughout his first two offseasons in Denver, he reminded anyone who listened that getting the proper timing with a new set of receivers takes years. Thus, it would inevitably be better in 2013 than 2012, as the practice repetitions with targets like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas accumulated.
But how much better?
Try the best season of Manning’s career, one that went all the way to Super Bowl XLVIII.
The Broncos scored more points than any offense in league history. Diverse in its array of playmakers, Denvebecame the only offense in which five players scored at least 10 touchdowns. Even in an era of turbo-charged numbers, the Broncos’ production was absurdly prolific: 606 points in the regular season, an average of 37.9 per game.
A 26-16 AFC Championship Game win over the Patriots sent Manning to his third career Super Bowl — and cornerback Champ Bailey to his first.
Bailey didn’t set any records in 2013, but his narrative was just as memorable to the Broncos as that of No. 18.
After 14 brilliant seasons — including nine with the Broncos — injuries and age finally caught up to Bailey in 2013. He played most of the season with a foot injury, and as as he tried to come back, an air of finality engulfed the best cornerback in Broncos history.
He had been left grasping on a pair of touchdowns in the previous year’s playoff loss to Baltimore. In his 15th NFL season, he was reaching territory that few cornerbacks had ever known.
When he finally returned in December after exacerbating the injury in two separate returns to action, he was limited to work in the Broncos’ nickel and dime packages, placing a natural cap on his repetitions. That reality was as painful as the foot for a cornerback who prided himself on being left on an island to cover an opponent’s top receiver without needing much help from a safety.
His role looked as though it would be limited until Chris Harris Jr. suffered a partial knee ligament tear in the divisional-round win over the Chargers. With no other proven options, Bailey was back to playing every down, and in the AFC Championship Game, he delivered a vintage, lockdown performance moving between the slot and outside.
As the Broncos celebrated the 26-16 win over the Patriots, there was an abundance of happiness. For head coach John Fox, the celebration was as much about overcoming midseason open-heart surgery as winning a title. For Manning, it was about becoming just the third quarterback to guide multiple teams to the Super Bowl.
But above all, this Super Bowl trip was for Bailey, who had carried the defense through lean years, re-signed with the Broncos when they were at their 4-12 nadir, and now was a part of getting them back to the pinnacle.
“There are a lot of guys in that (locker) room (for whom) it means a lot to them because it means a lot to him,” Fox said.
But the warm feelings around Bailey and the Broncos crumbled in Super Bowl XLVIII. A combination of crowd noise and miscommunication led to a safety on the first play from scrimmage, when Manny Ramirez’s snap sailed past Manning and into the end zone. That wasn’t the reason why the Broncos lost, but a tone had been set.
Seattle’s defensive speed dismantled the Broncos’ most trusted offensive weapons. The screen passes that were so perfect throughout the year were blown up by defenders closing from the back side. The offensive line was overrun from the flanks by quick pass rushers. And the Broncos’ defense finally collapsed under the weight of injuries that had accumulated and, by the Super Bowl, had robbed them of six starters, including Harris and Von Miller.
Every coach, including Fox, has at some point preached, “Next man up,” as a mantra for overcoming injuries. Eventually, even the best teams run out of next men, and the Broncos fell, 43-8.
The Broncos didn’t hoist the Lombardi Trophy. But they did leave fans and aficionados of offensive football with an unforgettable season-long masterpiece.