DENVER — So, who you got?
’96 Jaguars or ’12 Ravens? Mark Brunell or Joe Flacco?
Beaten by a hot team — or a choke job by the host team?
Saturday qualifies as a where-were-you moment in the life of a Broncos fan: Where were you when Denver trumped the loss to Jacksonville with a collapse that was worse?
On Jan. 4, 1997, Jacksonville won at Denver, 30-27.
On Jan. 12, 2013, Denver lost to Baltimore, 38-35.
It is fresh, and fresh wounds tend to sting just a tad more. But the Broncos' loss to the Ravens at Sports Authority Field came in double-overtime and was doubly painful.
"This is as tough as it gets,” Brandon Stokley said.
The central difference between the upsets to Jacksonville and Baltimore: The Jags stormed into Mile High and beat the Broncos; the Ravens simply allowed the Broncos to give it away.
This was football charity. All the Broncos forgot was a ribbon and a bow.
I remember the day too clearly, even if I wasn’t in the Broncos locker room after the loss to Brunell’s Jags in ’97. Those Broncos were 13.5-point favorites at Mile High.
Can’t imagine it was more devastated than the locker room I witnessed Saturday, when the Broncos were 10-point favorites against the Ravens. Von Miller stayed in uniform, his head in his hands, while most of his teammates were showered and leaving.
Hard to say which was more numb: The 76,732 fans who stood through the second-coldest home game in club history, or the Broncos veterans who saw their season end with a thud.
"It’s tougher the older you get, because you never know when that door is going to close,” Champ Bailey said.
The Broncos doubled up the Ravens in their first meeting: 34-17 Dec. 16.
This time, the Broncos doubled down on dumb decisions.
Ten penalties, one shy of their season high. Attempting a 52-yard field goal with a wind chill around zero (and the Ravens turning the field position into a touchdown). Signing Peyton Manning — the NFL’s record-holder for comeback victories — and then taking a knee to close regulation. With 30 seconds and two timeouts to spare.
“You know, if you don’t win you get criticized on everything,” coach John Fox said.
The official temperature at kickoff was 13 degrees. On a day frigid enough to freeze nose hairs, the Broncos suffered a loss that stung like a poorly stuck 2-iron.
“It was my fault,” safety Rahim Moore said. “Plain and simple.”
Let me be the first to disagree. This was not solely because Moore allowed Jacoby Jones to get behind him on a 70-yard Hail Mary that answered Baltimore prayers.
“That’s their go-to play — it’s all streaks,” cornerback Chris Harris said.
“We preached all week: Don’t give up the deep ball,” Bailey said.
This was on the entire defense, which allowed the Ravens 479 yards on offense. Only twice this season did Baltimore gain more.
Only 129 tickets went unused. It was as if the Denver defenders forgot theirs.
“I don’t feel sorry for us,” defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said.
And yes, this was on Peyton Manning.
“We got the Peyton Manning we thought we were getting,” John Elway said in a recent interview on Denver radio station 104.3 The Fan.
He was right about that, right down to the playoff struggles that should knock Manning a notch below the Elways and Unitases and Bradys of the QB position.
Manning has been magic as a Bronco. But the numbers no longer can be ignored. He is 9-11 as a starter in the playoffs. As in, 9-1-1, dial for help.
Glove or no glove, Manning has been one-and-done eight times in his playoff career. With a bye week, it is as though he’s given an extra week to overanalyze the next opponent.
Denver so outclassed Baltimore, the only way the Broncos could lose was with turnovers. Manning committed three, including an interception that set up Justin Tucker’s game-winning field goal.
Baltimore didn’t put Denver’s Super Bowl dreams on ice. The Broncos froze out themselves.
"I wasn’t quite as good as I wanted to be,” Manning said.
The '12-13 Broncos were 13-3 and seeded No. 1.
The '96-97 Broncos were 13-3 and seeded No. 1.
The Broncos weren’t close to where they should’ve been — not then or now.
This loss hurt more, and will for longer.