They want to play, and now they get their chance. Finally, it seems.
Denver is anxious to get the playoffs underway as they take on the No. 4 seed Baltimore Ravens at 2:30 p.m. (on CBS) at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Rematch isn't important, both Broncos and Ravens say
Week 15 is not, in any shape or form, the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. That previous Broncos victory over the Ravens isn't anything more than a bereft gauge.
It's just not.
"You throw that out the window," said wide receiver Brandon Stokley on facing the Ravens for the second time in so many weeks. "They've got a lot of new pieces in. They're playing a lot better. The last game, it doesn't matter at all."
Denver won handily in the previous engagement, 34-17. Manning was precise, he completed 17-of-28 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. The Broncos maintained possession for over 38-minutes and rushed for 165 yards on the ground to control the tempo of the game. And the defense held strong; holding Ray Rice to only 38 rushing yards, sacking Joe Flacco three times and forcing an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The game happened, it's gone, but it cannot be completely ignored.
"I'm sure it helps them, too," acclaimed Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh said about still having a certain familiarity with Denver that help with a game plan. "We have a lot of foundation of work already done."
The Broncos are one of the hottest teams in the NFL, which is certainly no surprise to Harbaugh and the Ravens. Denver has won 11 in a row and is seemingly peaking at the right time.
Baltimore still has much to prove. They lost four of their last five regular season games to slide into the playoffs. The Ravens toughed out an opening round victory over the Indianapolis Colts; thriving off the emotional return of linebacker Ray Lewis.
But they're still here now, aren't they?
"They are a great team. I'm not taking that away from them. They have earned the right to have their home-field advantage throughout the playoffs," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "We have earned the right to get another shot."
It'll be the Ravens opening to avenge a loss or the Broncos opportunity to reassert Baltimore into their place, either way, by kickoff that likely won't be the most pressing issue on anyone's mind. Those petty plots don't stand a chance.
"They have a lot to prove, but we still have a lot to prove," said Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, who intercepted Flacco's pass just before halftime to swing momentum heavily in favor of Denver. "We know that the playoffs are where you make your name."
This game will be anything but the same, because it's worth so much more.
Experience is on the Broncos side, this time around
You won't know what it's really like until you've been there. Most of them have.
Thirty-six Broncos, of their 53-man roster, know how it feels to play in a playoff game. There is an added pressure, where any and every play can decide the outcome, and the additional emotion that comes with the territory in postseason play.
"The intensity will be increased. The emotion will be increased. There is no doubt about that, but you still have to stay within yourself. Not allow that to take you out of your game. There is a fine line there," eluded linebacker Keith Brooking who has been to the playoffs on four different occasions, with Atlanta and Dallas. "You just do what has gotten you to this point in the season and put us in a position to win right now."
The Broncos current standing definitely plays a part, but their playoff push last year was the biggest aiding factor that they could build a base of knowledge to look back on.
Twenty-two players saw their first-ever action, and acquired requisite knowledge for this year in the two games against the Steelers and Patriots. They are keenly aware of what it's all about, how to respond in the heightened moment and what it will take to continue to be successful.
"Last year was my first time and a lot of guys' first time to get in the playoffs to see what it feels like and know what you have to do to win," recalled linebacker Wesley Woodyard. "You have to be on your game every single snap."
The potency of a playoff atmosphere, Peyton Manning reveals, "there's nothing quite like it," never wears off.
The players look forward to it and relish the prospect, but they now also know what to expect.
"A lot of these guys in the locker room have been to the playoffs and a couple of guys have been to a Super Bowl and have been further, so they know what it takes to win," wide receiver Eric Decker said. "That's always helps going into a format like this."
Peyton Manning, center Dan Koppen and wide receiver Brandon Stokley have a combined 44 games of playoffs experience, and five Super Bowl rings. Their leadership and expertise in the most trying of situations cannot be overlooked.
"I think there's no substitute for experience," said head coach John Fox. "I think you draw from it and what you do with its critical and so time will tell."
Most of the Broncos are a year older, a year-wiser. They are more ready, more prepared, more qualified and more likely to have success.
Gearing up this week should be no different for Denver
"Live each day as if it were your last," is easily translatable, especially to football lingo.
"I always try to prepare every single week as if it was a playoff game or the Super Bowl," said quarterback Peyton Manning, who knows firsthand what preparing for a big game like that is actually like. "Whatever it is, that's your job I think as an NFL player so when you get to the playoffs, that's really the mindset."
The Broncos have been enamored with the process, getting better and taking on the sometimes overwhelming goal of becoming the best "one week", or even "one day" at a time. An eleven game winning streak and a tie for the best record in football is proof that it is working.
"I think that's a great point to make right there is just prepare like we've been preparing," reinforced defensive lineman Justin Bannan. "At the end of the day, it's football."
Denver won't have to change the formula on what got them to this point, and they shouldn't.
"I had an old coach that used to always say, 'If all the sudden, you have to do something different in the postseason to get ready to play, that means you probably haven't been doing the right things during the regular season to get ready to play,'" recalled Peyton Manning.
They have set up the groundwork, week to week. Why change it now, it appears to be working, right?
Frigid forecast will be fine by them
Twenty-one degrees and cold, flurries the night before, and draping shadows across Sports Authority Field will provide the arctic backdrop for Saturday's Divisional Playoff game.
Or merely perfect football weather.
"It should be fun," said Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco of this frosty possibility. "I think we'll all adapt pretty well to it and just be ready to go."
The frigid temperatures are nothing new for either team, although neither has been forced to play in such chilly conditions this year.
Denver's average temperature for the month of January is 41-degrees, in Baltimore, Maryland (or Owings Mills, just northwest of the city, where the Ravens practice facility is located) it's only slightly higher at 47 degrees. Both sides practice in the cold weather and understand the complications that come with it. The strategy and effect on a game may be slightly altered, but neither will readily make it an excuse.
"It's just going out and playing in a different climate and whatever it is," Ray Lewis said. "They have to play in the same climate we are in whether they're acclimated to it or not. Coach didn't make it an issue, so we're not going to make it an issue."
The intensity of the game, the heat of competition will also do its part to warm the players are much as any heater or extra layer (minus the sleeves, of course).
Broncos won't hear any chatter, including the compliments
The top-seeded Broncos can't get caught up in a spider web of praise.
"Arguably, they are the best team in football," Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis said. "If that's what it is, then let's line up and let's be who we are, and let's get ready to play the best team in football."
It's a tribute, but nothing new.
While the outside world, the fans and media included, admires each additional Denver win, inside the walls of Broncos headquarters its still business. "A lot of people are going to say that since we've been winning. We're just trying to keep going and keep winning, that's our main goal and focus now," asserted Demaryius Thomas.
And it may as well be a ploy, an intentional tactic and a strategic sentiment that the Broncos will have none of.
"I don't really buy into all that mental warfare and all that stuff," said linebacker Von Miller. "I like to just get between the lines and play football. We've all been doing it all our lives. That's something you can settle the score out on the football field."
Flattery, in any extent, and more likely criticism is a part of any prelude. The game is what truly matters.
"Talking's not going to prove a whole lot to anyone," said veteran linebacker Keith Brooking. "We're all about preparing and doing what we can do to be at our best Saturday when toe meets leather. That's our mindset."
The final stop for Ray Lewis could be Denver
His farewell tour, his "last ride" will make at least one more stop.
Ray Lewis willed his team, emotionally and physically to an opening round win over the Indianapolis Colts. Thirteen tackles, nine of those solo, and a pass deflection in his first game since tearing his right triceps was a gutsy performance that could only epitomize his career.
"He's made a huge difference for their team coming back. You could see the energy that he brought to that team on Sunday in their playoff game," said Peyton Manning, who has battled, on many occasions, with Lewis and his defense. "He's special. That's all you can say."
Lewis , who has played for the same franchise since its inception in 1996, said there will be no carry over in emotions that pulsed through him and his teammates in No. 52's final game in Baltimore. There will be a new, but altogether very similar sensation in Denver Saturday.
"The emotions are going to be what they're going to be," said Lewis. "When you go out to the next round, you move to the next round very quickly, and you're mentality has to move with it. You can't be running around here still celebrating last week. Last week is over."
The future NFL Hall of Famer, 1,336 tackles and 41.5 sack to his name, isn't the same player he once was, the one that led the Ravens to the 2001 Super Bowl and was awarded most valuable player of that game, but he still commands respect on the field.
Lewis remains as the undeniable heart of their defense.
"I think guys play differently when he is in there," Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme said. "We have to be ready for him, get a game plan going and do whatever we have to do to move the ball down the field and get it in the end zone."
And whether this is the abrupt end or not, his impact was felt in Denver, as it was likely everywhere else around the league. His passion, gamesmanship and hunger will certainly leave a mark on the NFL.
"The game is going to miss him," said veteran cornerback Champ Bailey. "I know he is going to miss the game, but I think the game will miss him more."