March 8, 2012 – The Indianapolis Colts release 36 year-old Peyton Manning after 13 seasons.
March 20, 2012 – John Elway and The Denver Broncos sign Peyton Manning to a five year, $96 million dollar deal.
January 13, 2013 – The No. 1 seed Broncos are stunned in the divisional round by the Baltimore Ravens in double OT after Joe Flacco’s Hail Mary late in regulation.
February 2, 2014 – The Broncos, with the No. 1 offense in the NFL, are blown out 43-8 by the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII.
January 11, 2015 – The No. 2 seed Broncos lose at home to the Indianapolis Colts 24-13 in the divisional round of the playoffs.
February 7, 2016 – The Broncos defeat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50 to win their third championship in franchise history.
For Denver Broncos fans, these six dates are probably the biggest in recent memory. They are etched in our memories forever. Some of the lowest of lows, and highest of highs. Sunday’s Super Bowl victory was the result of a long, arduous process. A process that started four years ago with the signing of Peyton Manning. I remember the day the Broncos got Peyton. My reaction was, “No way. This has to be a joke.” We were just coming off the hype and hoopla of the Tim Tebow season. None of that mattered anymore. Even with questions surrounding his neck surgery, Manning was brought to Denver to do one thing: win the Super Bowl.
That goal was accomplished Sunday with the Broncos’ 24-10 win over Carolina to win Super Bowl 50. I’ve been a Broncos fan all of my life. Which is confusing for many people because I’m from Chicago. I have to explain it probably hundreds of times every year it seems, “because they’re my Dad’s team” I always tell people (My Dad grew up in Denver, raised us to be Broncos fans). People make plenty of bandwagon jokes/accusations but I don’t care, I know the truth. In my 21-year Broncos fandom, Sunday was the happiest day of my life. Experiencing my first Super Bowl as a grown up. It was so sweet. The only thing that would have made it sweeter would have been being at home with my family.
This Super Bowl victory was the culmination of a long journey. A journey lead for four years by quarterback Peyton Manning. His arrival in Denver brought an expectation of Super Bowl or bust. It was a roller coaster of joy and doubt, but in the end he accomplished what he was brought in to do: win a Super Bowl. In the process he cemented his legacy in Broncos history, and the defense cemented their legacy as an all-time great NFL defense.
The last four years were an incredible journey, and I’m thankful for all of it. I wanted to review how the Broncos got here, season by season, heartache by heartache, success by success.
A constant reminder to trust the process.
The First Season
In Manning’s first year in Denver, the Broncos looked immediately different on offense. It was like night and day compared to the Tebow Era offense. Denver ended the season on an 11-game winning streak going into the playoffs, rolling to a 13-3 record, and secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
Against Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens, a young, inexperienced Broncos team struggled. Manning wasn’t great, and it took two Trindon Holliday kick returns to make it 28-28 in the fourth quarter. A Manning TD pass to Demaryius Thomas late in regulation gave the Broncos a 35-28 lead. The Ravens faced a 3rd and 3 with 31 seconds left. It seemed all but certain that the Broncos would hold on. Then Joe Flacco crushed Broncos fans’ souls with a 70-yard Hail Mary to Jacoby Jones that should have never happened. Shocked, appalled, and amazed are the words I can best use to describe my reaction to that play. The game went to double overtime where the Broncos wound up losing 38-35 on a Justin Tucker game-winning field goal.
I’ll go to my grave believing Rahim Moore’s blown coverage on Jones’ Hail Mary cost the Broncos a Super Bowl. The next week Denver would have hosted the Patriots at home in the AFC Championship, and I truly believe would have beaten San Francisco in Super Bowl 47. It was probably the second most devastating defeat in Denver Broncos history, most devastating of my life (I wasn’t around for ’96 loss to the Jags). But hope was still alive as Manning showed brilliance all year long. Growing pains were to be expected.
The Second Season
The Broncos opened the 2013 season at home against none other than the Ravens, the team that eliminated them the year prior. In a 49-27 win at Mile High, Manning threw seven touchdown passes, an NFL record. The rest of the season was pretty much the same. Manning racking up TD passes, and the Broncos winning games. With the No. 1 offense in the NFL, Manning threw 55 touchdown passes in the season, setting an NFL record. Denver once again entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The Broncos beat divisional rival San Diego, and then Tom Brady’s Patriots in the AFC title game to secure a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII in New York against the Seahawks. It would be the seventh trip to the Super Bowl in franchise history.
In the Super Bowl, the league’s No. 1 offense went up against the No. 1 defense. I was line for Super Bowls 32 and 33, but this would be my first time as a grown up seeing the Broncos in the Super Bowl. I was ready to celebrate. In my mind, there was no way this offense could be stopped.
It was like a nightmare. A nightmare that wouldn’t end. From the first snap to the last. In fact, it was the first snap, which went flying over Manning’s head into the endzone for a safety, that spelt doom for the Broncos. Immediately following that play I knew the Broncos were in trouble. They were off, and Seattle was on. Down 23-0 at halftime, I knew it was over. A kick return by Seattle to open the second half only reaffirmed that fact.
I didn’t move the entire game. The loss to Baltimore the previous year was a gut punch, this was like slowly bleeding to death. I was not emotionally prepared for the Broncos to get blown out. To be quite honest, it affected me for weeks. The Seahawks defense pushed around the Broncos offense like they hadn’t been all season. Russell Wilson made the Denver defense look like it was standing still. The Seahawks rolled to a 43-8 blow out win. It was the fourth time the Broncos had been blown out in the Super Bowl. My dad sat through the previous ones, this was my first. Man… It was difficult. It was even harder to admit that maybe this team wasn’t perfect after all, and that serious changes still needed to be made. The Broncos weren’t ready for that stage. The clock was ticking…
The Third Season
Coming off the Super Bowl loss, the 2014 season was almost awkward. I felt like I had a bad taste in my mouth all year. So eager to try to get back to the Super Bowl, but a sick feeling like the Broncos possibly blew their chance. I felt like the Broncos were trying too hard in the 2014 season. The loss clearly resonated with the players, and GM John Elway. The Broncos went 12-4 in the regular season, earning the No. 2 seed in the AFC behind the New England Patriots.
In the divisional round, in one of the ugliest games I’ve ever watched, the Broncos lost at home 24-13 to Andrew Luck and the Colts. Another early exit for Manning and the Broncos. This time to his old team and their new rising star QB. The narrative was already there: Manning is done. I hate to say at times I bought in. Two early playoff losses in three seasons. How much longer could Peyton be elite? The Broncos’ championship window was closing. Something needed to happen.
The Fourth Season
After the loss to the Colts, John Elway was ready to make some changes. Changes that would alter the course of the Manning Era. The Broncos parted ways with head coach John Fox, and hired Elway’s former backup and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. The move was bold, but Kubiak was brought in to toughen up a Broncos team that had been repeatedly pushed around in the postseason under Fox. Elway signed veterans on defense like T.J. Ward and Demarcus Ware to add experience to an already star studded defense with guys like Von Miller and Aqib Talib.
Going into the 2015 season, it was evident that this Broncos team would have to win in a different way that the previous three years. Manning was not the same, the offense could barely function. But the defense… it was all-world, and from the start they won games for the Broncos. For the first time in the Manning Era Peyton was becoming a liability on offense. After a mid-season loss at home to Kansas City, Peyton was benched for Brock Osweiler. After the game it was announced that Manning was injured, and that Osweiler would start for the near future. Was Manning’s career over? Was the Manning Era in Denver over? Tons of questions swirled through everyone’s mind. Could the Broncos survive with Osweiler? One question that I brought up was if the Manning Era in Denver was… a failure? Those words tasted like vinegar coming out of my mouth, but I truly believed it. I didn’t see any way around it. Peyton was brought here to win a Super Bowl, and at that point it felt like a pipe dream.
After a win over New England, and a 5-2 record as a starter, it seemed like the Brock Era in Denver was officially underway. With home field advantage up for grabs in the season finale against San Diego, the Broncos were trailing, Osweiler was struggling, and the only guy who could step in to be the hero did.
Denver needed a spark, and they got it. The Broncos won the game and secured home field throughout the AFC playoffs. Peyton secured a grip of the starting QB job for the playoffs. It would be up to Manning to be a game manager in the playoffs, and let the defense do the dirty work as they had all season. I said before the playoffs started that the only chance Denver had to reach the Super Bowl was if they had home field. They had accomplished that, and it made a difference. Manning was by no means great, but he did just enough. The defense played phenomenal, and took advantage of a huge fumble to secure a victory against Pittsburgh.
In the AFC title game against the defending champion New England Patriots, nobody was picking the Broncos. There seemed to be no way that Brady and company would lose to Denver. The opposite turned out to be true. The Denver offense did enough, and the defense tormented Brady all day long. It was a nail biter all the way through, but after a 20-18 victory the Broncos were headed to their second Super Bowl of the Manning Era.
The Super Bowl
In Super Bowl 50 the Broncos went up against league MVP Cam Newton and the high powered Carolina Panthers. Once again the Broncos were heavy underdogs. Everybody was picking Carolina. Unlike two years prior, I was emotionally prepared for whatever was to happen in the game. Win, loss, blow out, I was ready for any of them. To be honest, I was just so proud to have made it this far. This team resonated in different ways than the others. This team was tough, won with defense, poised in close games… Everything that the previous teams lacked. They were ready for this big stage, and hungry for revenge.
You already know what happened. Behind the league’s No. 1 defense, the Broncos shocked the heavily favored Panthers 24-10 to win the Super Bowl. It was UNREAL. It wasn’t pretty, but they got the job done once again. I have vague memories from the Super Bowl wins in ’97 and ’98, but they were mostly just of our family party and my Dad being REALLY happy. This was my first as an adult, and man was it sweet. It was sweet because of the defense, it was sweet because of the Super Bowl loss two years ago, it was sweet because Elway said “This one’s for Pat’ referencing Broncos owner Pat Bowlen who is suffering from Alzheimers, it was sweet because of the happiness in the massive group text with my Dad, Aunt, Uncle and their family members in Colorado, it was sweet because of the roller coaster ride of the past four seasons, and it was sweet because of Peyton.
I criticized Peyton more this season than I had in the previous three combined. I didn’t believe he could lead Denver to a Super Bowl anymore. In reality I wasn’t wrong, the Broncos’ defense won the Super Bowl. But in another sense I was so so so wrong. Manning lead by example, and changed his style to be a game-manager. He made sure he didn’t LOSE the game, and let the defense WIN it. He accomplished what he was brought to Denver to do, win the Super Bowl. Months prior to the victory, when Osweiler was taking snaps with Manning on the sideline, I was prepared to write an article discussing if the Manning Era in Denver was a success or failure.
In hindsight that seems incredibly silly and stupid of me. There is no doubt, it was a success. Peyton is now a guaranteed “Ring of Fame” member in Mile High Stadium. He is also a two-time Super Bowl champion, and this time did it in orange and blue.
In the last four years Broncos fans have experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, but in the end it was all worth it, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I’m so thankful for Peyton Manning and the memories he made for us in Denver.
Thank you, Peyton. Thank you, Broncos.
Great article. For me hearing the highlights and low lights of the Broncos with Peyton was enlightening. Not being a true football fan, I do love the Broncos and watch them whenever I can. This win was amazing. It was a defensive battle from both teams. Both quarterbacks were shut down and the defensive players did what they had to do and stepped up to the plate. It was a nail biter, but they pulled it off in a great way. I have not followed Peyton, per say, but he showed me on Sunday what a class act he is. I am so happy for the team and for Peyton. Thank you, Johnny, for this great article. It was very enlightening and I enjoyed it tremendously.