Updated: December 2, 2013 at 9:11 am
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If this all works out, if the Broncos rip through the next eight weeks and this thing ends in a Super Bowl parade, they should send two thank-you notes.
One to Baltimore.
One to Kansas City.
Thank the Ravens for delivering a painful reminder of how rare these opportunities can be. Thank the Chiefs for being just good enough — but not too good — to prevent the Broncos from kicking back and simply coasting to the finish.
Because this all goes back to last season, doesn't it? This season is all about what coulda, shoulda, woulda been if the Ravens didn't play the role of purple thieves and steal a Super Bowl berth from the good people of Colorado. And last year the Broncos didn't have an AFC West rival as dangerous as these Chiefs to present a playoff-like test before the actual playoffs.
"I don't think any of us have ever forgot last year," Broncos cornerback Chris Harris told me in the locker room after Denver defeated Kansas City 35-28 Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
This is about football redemption, and after seeing the teams with the second- and third-best records in the AFC in consecutive weeks, the late-season audit is clear:
The Broncos never will have a better chance to reach a Super Bowl than this season.
Tom Brady and the Patriots are scary. The Chiefs are relentless. The Steelers, Ravens, Bengals or whoever else would bring back bad memories of a low seed at Mile High.
But all would be decided underdogs against the Broncos, whether it's in Foxboro, K.C., Denver, or in the Arctic, where Peyton Manning would be forced to wear two gloves and a personal space heater.
Manning wore one glove and threw five touchdowns on Sunday. Four of them landed in the redeemed hands of Eric Decker, who set a single-game franchise record.
A couple of Peyton's passes even wobbled.
"I know it's a hot debate locally, the RPMs and all that," Manning said of his wobbly passes, which have resulted in 4,125 yards, the most in NFL history in 12 games.
"We knew that he could throw the football deep," Decker said.
These Broncos, too, are a little wobbly. This late season isn't the football masterpiece they painted during an 11-game winning streak last season.
That's one of two things: something to worry about because the Broncos aren't as dominant, or a good thing because they won't coast into the postseason again.
I suggest it's the latter.
I never believed the notion a team should lose, or needed to be tested, to regain their edge for a postseason. Not until I saw it first-hand last season against Baltimore. Over the final 10 games, those Broncos trailed at halftime only once.
For too long they had coasted. Lulled by their own success, when the Broncos were faced with a test, against the Ravens, they failed.
There's no lulling late this season. The ending Sunday, in which the Chiefs drove inside the 20 with a chance to tie with two minutes left, did no favors for the surgically repaired heart of John Fox.
Fox is back as the coach on Monday. Take it easy on his ticker, Broncos.
Last week the Patriots delivered "a slap in the face," as team captain Wesley Woodyard put it, with an overtime win at frigid Foxboro.
In the playoff picture, are these good things, though?
"I think to be a good team, down the stretch you've got to build some toughness," Champ Bailey said after he returned to the field Sunday. "We had a lot of reasons to fold. We showed some toughness."
Then on Sunday, the Chiefs built a 21-7 lead before Manning wobbled his way to the next 28 points.
"We know we've got the greatest quarterback in the game," Bailey said.
These Broncos are not perfect, but they are the cream of the AFC and will be favored in every game for the rest of the season — regular or post.
"We control our own destiny," said Woodyard, whose first-quarter interception against the Chiefs was the kind of play the Broncos didn't make against the Ravens.
Last year I thought the Broncos never would have a better road to a Super Bowl. I was wrong. Now, the AFC is even more primed for the taking.
"We want to definitely take advantage of our opportunities to kind of set ourselves up back in that same situation of having home-field advantage and having the playoffs come through Denver," Harris said.
Thirty minutes before kickoff Sunday, a tiny prop plane flew above Arrowhead Stadium, carrying a banner: "THIS IS OUR HOUSE — PAYBACK TIME."
The AFC coulda, shoulda, woulda been the Broncos' house last season. Now they must treat this season as payback time and take full advantage of a flawed AFC and a golden Super Bowl opportunity.
"I tip my hat to the Chiefs," Harris said.
While you're at it, tack on a thank-you note.