DENVER — As part of the three-step recovery process, Broncos Country can be assured the worst is behind it.
Grief settled in like a New Year's hangover. Months of Broncos Kool-Aid ended with a mile-high headache.
Acceptance arrived when the AFC and NFC championships were played without the Broncos. There was no other choice but to accept the Ravens' win in Denver.
And here comes promise: “We had a very similar team,” Shannon Sharpe said.
Soothing words from a philosopher of Denver’s highest order, the Ring of Fame.
It is promising that Sharpe sees similarities. I asked him to compare his ’96 Broncos, who were upset by the Jacksonville Jaguars in a home playoff game, with the '12 Broncos, who were upset by the Baltimore Ravens in a home playoff game.
“We can dress it up and say, 'The Broncos should've done this, should’ve done that,'" Sharpe said. "But at the end of the day, hey: It was just like us in '96."
Great teams are defined by how they respond to the bad stuff.
So here is the important part: The ’96 Broncos recovered from a crippling loss in the playoffs to bring back-to-back Super Bowl titles to Colorado. I wanted to know: How did they do it?
“It’s going to come back to: How refocused and rededicated are these guys going to be? What do they learn from this?” said Sharpe, the former tight end and current CBS analyst.
And can Denver do it again — go from playoff heartbreak to Super Bowl success?
First, compare the foundations of the Broncos teams that lost. Our memories are wired to give the edge to teams from the past. Times were always better "back then."
But the ’96 Broncos, who went on to a pair of world championships, were not as dominant against their competition as the ’12 Broncos, who are built for one championship, at least.
John Elway's Broncos scored 391 points (Steve Atwater’s defense allowed 275). Peyton Manning’s Broncos scored 481 (Von Miller’s defense allowed 289, a wash).
Those Broncos had the AP Offensive Player of the Year in Terrell Davis. These Broncos had an Offensive Player of the Year candidate in Manning.
The Hall-of-Fame quarterback parallels are easy — Elway then, Manning now.
Similarities are in the details, too. Those Broncos had a rookie backup from (Northern) Arizona, Jeff Lewis. These Broncos had a rookie backup from Arizona (State), Brock Osweiler.
Neither really played. Neither really needed to.
Those Broncos kept their core intact. These Broncos would be nuts to let their core leave.
"I think Peyton Manning is John Elway’s equal at this point in time,” Sharpe said.
Before looking forward, Sharpe looked back.
To close the ’96 season, Mark Brunell and the Jags beat the Broncos, 30-27. Those Broncos were "outplayed," Sharpe said.
That, I think, is the difference in the two upsets.
The Jags came to Denver and beat those Broncos.
The Ravens came to Denver and let these Broncos beat themselves.
"We could never get that 10-, 14-point lead, where we were completely safe," Sharpe said. "The Ravens kept the game close enough to hand Ray Rice the ball and protect Joe Flacco. We know what the Broncos wanted to do. It’s what Peyton Manning has always been able to do: Give his team the lead and let their pass rushers get loose on you.”
Those Broncos got loose on their next schedule. After the upset loss in the playoffs, Sharpe’s Broncos won six straight games to open the next season. No hangover there.
If John Fox wants to follow Mike Shanahan’s blueprint to a 'T,' he should order these Broncos not to win the AFC West in 2013. The ’97 Broncos finished second in the AFC West (to the Chiefs) and won the Super Bowl out of the wild card position.
The '97 Broncos went 12-4 and beat the Jags (at home), Chiefs (on the road), Steelers (on the road) and Packers (on a neutral field, Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego).
In the interest of the recovery process, I asked Sharpe how long it took before he got over the loss to Jacksonville. The twin Super Bowl rings would indicate: Not long.
Not so, according to Sharpe. These Broncos don’t need a short memory to go from playoff disaster to Super Bowl glory.
“I’ve never gotten over it. And how long has it been?” Sharpe said. “I’ve never gotten over it. I’ve always said: We could’ve won three in a row. We had the team.”