Updated: January 20, 2014 at 8:06 am
DENVER — This will not go down as a rebuilding job. The stories you read and the narratives you hear won't properly entail the franchise overhaul this truly was.
In reality, the Broncos had to blow up the foundation to build a palace.
Before they reserved a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey, the Broncos were a monster project in need of reconstruction. Long before Sunday's 26-16 rout of the Patriots in the AFC championship game, the Broncos underwent a whole-body transformation, from the front office all the way down to the color of the uniforms they wear at home.
They turned back to John Elway at the top. They turned back to orange jerseys at Sports Authority Field. They ditched a Friday Night Lights offense that scored three points — total — in the 2011 finale. They welcomed the greatest offense in NFL history.
The Broncos are going back to the Super Bowl, for the first time in 15 years, and doesn't it just seem like it's been forever?
"You could see when we hired John Elway and then, in turn, very quickly hired John Fox, we had two guys who were going to lead us in the right direction," team president Joe Ellis told me in a giddy postgame locker room filled with song and dance.
"I didn't know how fast the success would come, but three division titles is a good start. We've still got to win one more game.
"It was a quick turnaround, a good turnaround," Ellis added.
Good? This was a blueprint for how it's done.
The major change was at quarterback, the addition of Peyton Manning, who on Sunday unloaded for another 400 passing yards, as if the Patriots were the Raiders.
But this overhaul is about much more than one man.
Denver changed coaches, moving from overwhelmed 32-year-old Josh McDaniels to the sturdy 55-year-old in John Fox. They changed quarterbacks, from the spirited Tim Tebow to the ultimate quarterback, Manning. Those were the headline-makers, but only the beginning.
Eighteen players on the current roster weren't on the roster last season. Finally, consider this nugget of truth: Of the 22 starters in that 7-3 loss to the Chiefs that closed the 2011 season, only four started in Sunday's beatdown of the Patriots.
"A lot's changed," said Champ Bailey, who's seen it all.
This wasn't tweaking a position here, adding a free agent there. This was scrapping the beach hut and building a resort. The Broncos didn't change everything, but you could see everything from the giant videoboard atop Sports Authority Field.
(The videoboard was changed, too.)
The end result is a matchup the football world wanted to see, with the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII — Denver's seventh appearance in the Big Game. It is a super example of what great leadership is able to accomplish.
Sounds cheesy. But it's true.
Pat Bowlen, the owner, doesn't hang banners for division titles.
"I told you back (in training camp), when you come here as a free agent, there's a different feeling about this franchise," said lineman Terrance Knighton, whose sack of Tom Brady highlighted another knockout performance from a defense stripped of its star power.
"Words can't even describe this," safety Mike Adams said.
The scene in the locker room was just what you might envision — even if it's been so long Broncos Country had forgotten.
Adams high-fived an equipment manager. Then he man-hugged another. Bailey, a 15-year veteran who will play in his first Super Bowl, mugged for photos with two of his children in T-shirts blaring "AFC CHAMPIONS."
Former Broncos John Lynch chatted up Bailey, his former teammate.
"He deserves this," Lynch said.
Rod Smith, the Broncos' honorary captain for the game, chatted up everyone.
"Excuse me, sir," said Nathan Palmer, a wide receiver on the practice squad. "I've got to call my momma."
Longtime PR guru Jim Saccomano weaved through the chaos carrying the Lamar Hunt trophy. "I'm looking for the case," Sacco said.
Mile High rocked. When 77,110 foot-stomping fans shook the foundation, it felt like the old Mile High. Show of hands: who were the 44 who didn't show? Shame, shame.
"To win this championship game in the new building makes it more special," Ellis said. "That's the first time we've done that."
The Patriots were exposed as a product of the middling AFC East. That can't be the second-best team the AFC had to offer, can it?
"I never thought it was Tom vs. Peyton. I'm an old quarterback," Archie Manning said in the locker room. "It's (about) teams. It's about teams."
The Broncos toyed with the Patriots, like a puppy with a chew toy. On a fourth-quarter scoring drive, the Broncos were penalized 10 yards. On the next play, they picked up 14. They were penalized 10 yards, again. So they picked up 16.
"I wish we could have done a little bit of a better job today," Pats coach Bill Belichick said. "Especially me."
The Patriots lost major players and were overwhelmed against proper competition. The Broncos lost major players and seem to be getting better as the season wears on.
The depth of the Broncos roster was never more apparent than when Chris Harris, Kevin Vickerson and Rahim Moore left the locker room together. On the way out, they passed by Von Miller. The star linebacker grabbed a slice of Papa John's pizza, while leaning on a set of crutches.
None of the four defenders played Sunday. Neither did Derek Wolfe. Still, the Patriots managed only three points through 35 minutes of game action.
"We've definitely come a long way in two years," Manning said.
A long, long way. All the way to the Super Bowl.