Updated: December 30, 2013 at 9:28 am
OAKLAND, Calif. — Like a pair of teachers watching over their class, Champ Bailey and Mike Adams surveyed the scene inside another victorious Broncos locker room.
They let the young 'uns soak in Sunday's 34-14 rout of the Raiders, sing their songs, dance their dances. Meanwhile, the vets did their thing. They said there's a bigger thing.
"It means a lot to get the No. 1 seed. But honestly, it doesn't mean anything," Adams told me with a tone as serious as the need for a new stadium in Oakland.
"We're not worried about what happened in the regular season. We're in position to go into the tournament," Bailey added inside O.co Coliseum.
"We've just got to win there."
Colorado's heart, which bleeds for the Broncos, can't handle heartbreak like last year.
For most of the past two seasons, the Broncos have been the best team in the NFL. With the playoffs up next, they must earn a Super Bowl berth to show for it.
This regular season was fun, football magic. It was often unbelievable. It was also the movie preview that precedes the main feature: entertaining, but you came for the big show. This Broncos season was always about the playoffs, starting with a home game at 2:40 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 12.
"This is why you lift weights, why you have the offseason programs - to give yourself a chance to play in the postseason," Peyton Manning said.
Over the next two weeks, the state of Colorado has a pair of obligations:
Collect the taxes from retail marijuana sales and build a snow-proof, toasty dome over Sports Authority Field. And cover Manning in bubble wrap.
Take note, if weather is still a worry: the long-range forecast projects the first playoff game will be played in 40- to 50-degree temperatures. There's no snow in sight.
There are no excuses in sight, not among the veterans in the Broncos locker room.
"It really doesn't matter what seed you are," Bailey said.
"We've just got to worry about ourselves," Jacob Tamme added.
As awesome as the Broncos offense has been - historically awesome, really - that's the cruel nature of a playoff loss like the playoff loss to the Ravens.
"It still stings," Adams said.
The Mile High Mistake changed everything for the Broncos. It changed how they view five straight wins against the hopeless Raiders. It changed how they view a No. 1 seed in the AFC, the seventh in franchise history. Four of those ended in the Super Bowl.
Will this one?
Hey, the veterans know what's up. They know 55 passing touchdowns and 606 points get you the top spot in the NFL record book. But they don't get you a sweet spot in the Super Bowl.
It's not fair to trivialize the Star Wars numbers of this season, cast aside a 13-3 season as if it were only a 16-game preseason. But the Ravens loss lingers.
"I tell you what: I'm still thinking about it right now, without you even bringing it up," Adams said. "Until we get it over with, it should be in the back of my mind. It should be in the back of all of our minds. You still think about it. You should."
Like last year, the Broncos have set themselves up for a Super Bowl run. The top seed guarantees home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They are not as balanced as last year, but they are more powerful and more often overwhelming.
The Raiders found themselves in a 31-0 black hole before they realized there were three Broncos fans sitting in the Black Hole. The Raiders are so bad that's acceptable now, to welcome Manning, Elway and Demaryius Thomas jerseys into the face-painted Raiders den.
The Raiders haven't finished better than third in the AFC West since 2002; the Broncos have won the past three AFC West titles. Deep in the dungeon of O.co Coliseum, a Raiders security man asked me if the playoffs start next weekend, or if there's a week off. The Raiders don't need to know these things.
Manning passed for 266 yards and four touchdowns — in the first half. Manning was Roger Federer, if Federer knew what shot his opponent would hit next, or Tiger Woods, with a remote-controlled Titleist. It was the greatest half of quarterbacking I've seen, capping the greatest season of quarterbacking anybody's seen.
"I thought the first half was as good in all three phases as we've had this year," coach John Fox said.
If this was a 16-game preseason simply leading into the playoffs, it was a preseason worth the price of 10 admissions.
"It's a season unlike any other for me," Manning said after setting the NFL's single-season passing yardage record with 5,477 yards, one more than 2011 Drew Brees.
It will always be one man's belief the 2012 Broncos had the best road a team can have to a Super Bowl. It was a gift wrapped in a gold bow and set on their doorstep.
What was learned from the Ravens loss?
"We know we've got to be prepared," Bailey said. "There's no such thing as overprepared. We'll make sure we're ready to go."
Even now, after all this, the Ravens loss still stings. Maybe it's not fair, but it's true: the Broncos must reach the Super Bowl to ease the sting.