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Klee: Broncos enter AFC Championship game by John Elway's design

By: Paul Klee
January 23, 2016 Updated: January 24, 2016 at 7:13 am
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photo - Peyton Manning and John Elway together on the stage for the trophy presentation following Denver's 26-16 win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship game Sunday, January 19, 2014 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Peyton Manning and John Elway together on the stage for the trophy presentation following Denver's 26-16 win over the Patriots in the AFC Championship game Sunday, January 19, 2014 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

DENVER - The reason why the Broncos are destined for years of championship games is wearing a plaid shirt. John Elway sits at the head of the table.

"I think what we're doing right now is staying in the moment," he says.

These moments are coming, not going away, because of Elway's way. Five years as general manager, five AFC West titles, three No. 1 seeds in the AFC playoffs, two of the past three AFC title games at Sports Authority Field, sixty-two total wins, second to the New England Patriots, who (have you heard?) visit the Broncos Sunday for a spot in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium on Feb. 7.

Peyton Manning or Tom Brady?

Elway.

He's 55 and signed No. 18, the No. 1 reason the Broncos hosted the AFC title game two years ago. He's the only one who could have convinced Gary Kubiak to attend their football family reunion, and Kubiak held the Broncos together through a dicey, dissected, dangerous quarterback change.

"It was a tough situation because there's obviously a lot of people that want to see Peyton playing," Elway says in a conversation in an upstairs meeting room at Dove Valley. "It was a really delicate situation, and he handled it masterfully."

This time Elway didn't wait until the 2-minute warning to lead the Broncos to triumph. This time he had built a comfy lead when quarterback chaos unfolded.

And did it ever.

While the football world anticipated Manning's inevitable decline, Elway planned for the After Party. He signed or drafted the 11 starters who make up the NFL's top defense, the first in franchise history, to carry the day when Peyton wasn't Peyton anymore. Five consecutive first-round draft picks were defenders. Big-splash free agents DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward are defenders. The less-acclaimed Darian Stewart, Antonio Smith, Vance Walker are defenders.

"Really, what I was drawing off of, is my experience in my career as the older I got . what was the formula?" Elway said. "The formula was to play good defense and offensively it was about running the ball."

In 2012, Elway spied a Hall of Fame quarterback with plenty left in the tank. Then he built toward a defensive future when the tank dipped toward empty.

Is Sunday the final dance for Manning at Mile High? Unfortunately, probably. Elway saw the signs because he lived the signs and now planned for the signs.

"When you have to take that final step, it's always hard to do because you're admitting the fact that you can't really play the game that you were so successful at and played well for a long, long time," Elway says. "It is hard, and it is harder the older you get. And it is harder to see all of a sudden, to make that adjustment and start relying on other people when you relied on yourself for so long."

I admire Manning in his fourth, and maybe final, season in Denver even more than in his record-breaking first three. Injured and relegated, he worked tirelessly to return.

"There's no question a lot has happened this season that's been very different for me than any other season that I've played in 18 years," Manning said. "Staying patient, taking it slow, one week at a time, that has certainly helped me."

The Broncos rode their defense to this conference championship game. Most of the defense is locked in for the '16 season. Free agent prospect Von Miller, the first player drafted by Elway and an Elway favorite, soon will be.

Who will be the starting quarterback? It might not matter. It didn't this season.

"That's been the concentration the last five years, defensively, to find those guys and be able to stop people," Elway says. "There was going to be a transition period. There's always a transition period, you know? Because unfortunately these great quarterbacks get older. At some point in time there's going to be a transition period. We've tried to work towards that, with Gary coming in this year, being more focused on the running game and get a little more balanced and try to help Peyton out."

Manning's career is long enough to vote - 18 years, with a 2-2 record in the playoffs against Brady-Belichick. Hollywood dreams of the script he could write.

Elway retired at 38. Manning is 39.

"It was more about me physically. I broke down. I missed four games in my last year (Manning missed six this season), pulled a hamstring, fell on the ball wrong. It was hard to heal," Elway says. "When you don't heal and you do get banged up, all the sudden you're hoping by next Sunday you're feeling good about the game. That's what it really came down to for me: Physically, whether I could handle it. Plus, I obtained my goal."

On the way to his first Super Bowl title with the Broncos, Elway's team was an underdog to the Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship game. Manning's Broncos are an underdog to the Patriots in Sunday's championship game.

Will Manning follow Elway's way? He can obtain their goal.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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