KLEE: For Manning and Broncos, it's Super Bowl or bust

By Paul Klee Updated: December 23, 2012 at 12:00 am • Published: December 23, 2012

DENVER — About Von Miller's pants.

They were cherry red, a color so bright only a Broncos’ record-holder could pull them off. His trademark eyeglasses? Wide-rimmed and perfectly huge.

I won’t go into the blingy diamond earrings. They were so loud his ears must be buzzing.

"He’s 36 years old?” Miller said in the locker room about Peyton Manning. “I didn’t know he was 36 years old. He doesn’t look 36 years old."

In our football state — the home of the NFL’s best team — about the only thing Manning hasn’t changed is Miller’s fashion sense. And let’s not change a thing about Miller, OK?

Everything else that involves the Broncos, Manning has changed. Most important, he has changed the expectations for this season and how it will be viewed in the end.

It is, quite suddenly, Super Bowl or bust.

A winter journey that stops short of New Orleans won't be enough. That’s where we are with a team of great balance, a roster built by one Hall of Famer (John Elway) and fueled by another (Manning).

Denver’s 34-12 rout of Cleveland on Sunday had the feel of one team hunting the perfect game and another hunting the nearest exit from Sports Authority Field.

But do these comments sound like they came from a locker room that had just won its 10th straight game?

“I feel like we can be so much better,” Champ Bailey said.

“We’ll watch the film and find things we can get better in,” Mike Adams said.

“There were a couple drives we didn’t finish off,” Brandon Stokley said.

No, they sound like they came straight from the mouth of the league MVP.

Manning not only sets the table for an offense that scored 30 points for the 10th time, tying the franchise record. He sets the company line: Good isn’t good enough.

“My motto has always been: Prepare hard, practice hard, work hard and play hard,” Manning said after passing for at least 300 yards (339) for the eighth time this season, also tying a franchise record. “So that’s what I try to do.”

Ten straight wins gets Denver a long list of pretty things for Christmas.

A pair of cherry-red pants and the right to wear them. A wild home crowd that rattles the press box on third down, just like the old days.

It gets the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff bracket if the Broncos beat Kansas City next Sunday. The No. 1 seed and home-field advantage for the duration of the playoffs — if the Broncos beat the Chiefs and Houston loses at Indianapolis.

But this is like the college basketball team that enters the NCAA Tournament with one or two losses and a No. 1 overall seed. If the nets don’t come down — or, in this case, the confetti at the Superdome — the season will be seen as incomplete. Manning’s Magic changed that.

“I've been on a team that had the No. 1 seed and lost in the first round at home (the 2005 Colts),” Stokley said.

“I’ve been a lot of great teams that didn’t win it all. When you have a team that’s capable of the ultimate goal, that’s all you’re playing for.”

Manning has made certain there is no let-up in these Broncos. The Chiefs are in trouble, just like the 10 before them. Only one opponent came within a touchdown and extra point.

When the Broncos win next Sunday, they will rumble into the playoffs with 11 straight wins.

Since 1970, six teams have entered the playoffs with at least 11 straight wins. The same number lost their first playoff game (two) as won the Super Bowl (two).

“(The streak) doesn’t change what we do at Dove Valley,” said Miller, who hasn’t come to grips with Manning’s age but does hold the Broncos single-season sack record with 17.5.

So it is with these Broncos, who win like it’s their job, like their quarterback expects. By the time Denver hosts a playoff game — Jan. 12 or 13, most probably — it will have been three months since the Broncos felt like Scrooge at the eggnog table, after a loss.

“I enjoy it for about four hours and then on to the next one,” coach John Fox said.

You know the only way he can enjoy it in full, right?

If the final game ends in Super Bowl glory.

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