Updated: January 13, 2013 at 12:00 am
ENGLEWOOD — The armor of a thick North Face coat and 240 pounds of football muscle is no match for raw emotion.
“It hurts like hell right now,” Keith Brooking said Sunday morning.
As he spoke in cracked tones, the 14-year linebacker fought a losing battle with tears.
“I can’t even describe it.”
Still numb from Denver’s disastrous Saturday? Imagine the Dove Valley locker room less than 24 hours after Baltimore’s 38-35, double-OT stunner sent the Broncos into a deep freeze.
Chris Harris chose a garbage bag to pack up his locker. Jim Leonhard elected for a cardboard box. Tracy Porter asked Champ Bailey for an autograph, a telling indicator there will be players shipped out — even on a roster custom-built for a Super Bowl.
“You’ll never have the same nucleus, the same group of guys that we have in here now,” Von Miller said.
“It’s tough,” Eric Decker said, “Having some guys say goodbye.”
That’s what pained these Broncos to tears: Their season had developed into a perfect storm. Every last quality needed for a Super Bowl run was in place: A vicious defense, an explosive offense, an adaptable coaching staff, a miserable AFC West, home games throughout the playoffs. A locker room that couldn’t be tighter if it was bound by string.
“It’s over. It will never be the same,” said Joel Dreessen, a Colorado native who watched the 1997 loss to Jacksonville and played in a defeat at least as painful. “That’s the facts.”
Super Bowl XLVII will go on — without the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
Super Bowl XLVIII will, too — with Denver as a favorite to be the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
Of the 33 players who started a game for the Broncos, executive decision-maker John Elway secured 23. Denver’s is a championship-level roster with staying power.
An 11-game win streak says more about the state of the Broncos than a 4-hour collapse on a frozen Saturday. Their roster is an engine that needs only an oil change, not a rebuild.
Left tackle Ryan Clady lines up as their most valuable free agent. Elway will root for the Raiders before he allows Clady to skip town. Expect a hefty new deal or franchise tag.
Another bankrupt postseason for Peyton Manning shouldn’t diminish the fact he was money in the bank during 13 wins. Manning's impact on the franchise can't be measured in stats, although his QB rating of 105.8 ranked second in the NFL.
But there was a tired tone in Manning’s voice that suggested the long road back from four neck surgeries beat down the 36-year-old quarterback.
“It’s a grind,” he said.
Saturday night, I saw an exhausted veteran finishing his 15th year and wondering how many grinds he has left.
"I accomplished a lot more this year than I certainly thought that I would have personally,” Manning said.
"Time is dwindling (for the veterans),” said Stokley, who stated clearly he wants to return for a 15th season. “It gets harder and harder.”
Bronco Land awoke to a grueling football hangover, the moment where you realize Saturday did, in fact, happen. That sick feeling when your stomach drops.
“My kids, they take it hard,” Stokley said.
In Baltimore and Indianapolis, Stokley experienced locker rooms that knew only extended success. He said these Broncos are no one-season wonders.
“There’s a good structure from the top. That’s very important,” he said. “The key pieces are here.”
After a football earthquake rattled the Rocky Mountains, it is a matter of picking up the pieces and putting them back together again.