ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Embarrassing headlines. Sidelined superstars. Retooled offenses. Shredded defenses. It’s a wonder the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos made it this far.
Bill Belichick’s smarts and Tom Brady’s tenacity always seems to trump tribulation.
This season, they brushed aside the Tim Tebow distraction and overcame Aaron Hernandez’s arrest and the losses of Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to put the Patriots (13-4) into the AFC championship for the third straight year.
Nobody does it better than Brady and Belichick, the best quarterback/coach combo in history with a record 18 playoff wins.
After last year’s stumble against Baltimore in the playoffs, John Fox and Peyton Manning also steered the Broncos (14-3) through a minefield to send Denver to its first conference championship in eight years.
After losing Elvis Dumervil in the infamous fax fiasco when his renegotiated contract didn’t reach team headquarters in time, Elway hit the jackpot in free agency by signing Welker and Louis Vasquez on offense and Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on defense.
They helped the Broncos weather an injury epidemic that claimed Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Rahim Moore, Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris while rendering captains Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard backups for most of the season.
Fox overcame his own heart operation that sidelined him for a month and even a player quitting on him at midseason, and Manning set a slew of records, including throwing for 55 TDs and 5,447 yards, to help the Broncos become the first 600-point team in league history.
The Broncos did it despite losing exceptional blindside protector Ryan Clady in Week 2 and being anchored by a converted guard who hadn’t played a full season at center in 14 years.
So, Manning sits just one win shy of returning to the Super Bowl just two years after he was jettisoned by the Indianapolis Colts following four neck surgeries that strengthened his resolve but weakened his throwing arm.
Both the Patriots and Broncos have quarterbacks known as grinders, who elevate the play of those around them because of their meticulous preparation.
The head coaches have very different reputations.
Belichick is known as a mostly dour mad genius -- even Manning called him "the best coach that I’ve ever competed against," and Brady has high praise for the tone he sets.
"We’re challenged here on a daily basis by Coach Belichick to show up, do the right thing, always put the team first and I think that’s what this team has always been about," Brady said.
Fox is the ultimate player’s coach whose bounce-off-the-walls energy and enthusiasm were very much needed after Josh McDaniels’ troubled tenure.
Rod Smith, who helped the Broncos win back-to-back titles in the late 1990s and will serve as their honorary captain Sunday, said he’s not surprised these are the two AFC teams left standing, battered though they may be, rendering this game in many ways a skirmish among subs.
"Honestly, you have two of the best organizations in football," Smith said. "You have to give it up to Mr. (Robert) Kraft and you have to give it up to Mr. (Pat) Bowlen."