ENGLEWOOD — Embarrassing headlines. Sidelined superstars. Retooled offenses. Shredded defenses. It's a wonder the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos made it this far.
Bill Belichick's smarts and Tom Brady's tenacity always seems to trump tribulation.
This season, they brushed aside the Tim Tebow distraction and overcame Aaron Hernandez's arrest and the losses of Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to put the Patriots (13-4) into the AFC championship for the third straight year.
"I'm sure every team is probably at this point overcome a lot," Brady said. "I know Denver has done a lot of those things, too. They've overcome a lot of things and injuries and so forth. It's just part of the NFL football season.
"To get out there and play 16 weeks and really see where you stand at the end of those 16 weeks, getting to the playoffs, play the best teams and see if you can advance. It's certainly not easy to do. It's very challenging."
Nobody does it better than Brady and Belichick, the best quarterback/coach combo in history with a record 18 playoff wins.
After last year's stumble against Baltimore in the playoffs, John Fox and Peyton Manning also steered the Broncos (14-3) through a minefield to send Denver to its first conference championship in eight years.
"That shock of what happened against the Ravens contributed to this team being able to be as flexible as it has been and survive the adversity that it's gone through," said Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s and now leads them from the front office instead of the huddle.
After losing Elvis Dumervil in the infamous fax fiasco when his renegotiated contract didn't reach team headquarters in time, Elway hit the jackpot in free agency by signing Welker and Louis Vasquez on offense and Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on defense.
They helped the Broncos weather an injury epidemic that claimed Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Rahim Moore, Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris while rendering captains Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard backups for most of the season.
Fox overcame his own heart operation that sidelined him for a month and even a player quitting on him at midseason, and Manning set a slew of records, including throwing for 55 TDs and 5,447 yards, to help the Broncos become the first 600-point team in league history.
The Broncos did it despite losing exceptional blindside protector Ryan Clady in Week 2 and being anchored by a converted guard who hadn't played a full season at center in 14 years.
So, Manning sits just one win shy of returning to the Super Bowl just two years after he was jettisoned by the Indianapolis Colts following four neck surgeries that strengthened his resolve but weakened his throwing arm.
"You don't take it for granted," Manning said, "especially when you've been through an injury, been through a major change and you're in the home stretch of your career."
Both the Patriots and Broncos have quarterbacks known as grinders, who elevate the play of those around them because of their meticulous preparation.
The head coaches have very different reputations.
Belichick is known as a mostly dour mad genius — even Manning called him "the best coach that I've ever competed against," and Brady has high praise for the tone he sets.
"We're challenged here on a daily basis by Coach Belichick to show up, do the right thing, always put the team first and I think that's what this team has always been about," Brady said.
Fox is the ultimate player's coach whose bounce-off-the-walls energy and enthusiasm were very much needed after Josh McDaniels' troubled tenure — and Elway suggested those qualities only increased after he had his aortic valve repaired in November.
"He's got more energy than anybody I've ever seen," Elway said. "That, to me, is the definition of John Fox: the energy level that he brings. He brings it to the practice field, and it's contagious. I think that's why he was a perfect fit for us."
Rod Smith, who helped the Broncos win back-to-back titles in the late 1990s and will serve as their honorary captain Sunday, said he's not surprised these are the two AFC teams left standing, battered though they may be, rendering this game in many ways a skirmish among subs.
"Honestly, you have two of the best organizations in football," Smith said. "You have to give it up to Mr. (Robert) Kraft and you have to give it up to Mr. (Pat) Bowlen."
The Patriots lose players left and right, but with Belichick they're always playing for trophies.
Elway has the Broncos doing the same thing again.
"Everybody thought it was a huge, horrible, financial disaster gamble with Peyton Manning," Smith said. "And he's got those 92 touchdowns in two years. ... So, the organization has done a masterful job."