DENVER - The Broncos are now facing one of those worst-case scenarios, the kind that will awaken their fans in the middle of the night.
After losing to the San Diego Chargers, 27-20, the Broncos lost their grip on home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Broncos could be forced to march in Foxboro, Mass., for the AFC Championship Game.
The Broncos could battle chilling New England winds, the superlative passing touch of Tom Brady and the evil genius of Bill Belichick. This would be a challenge of historic dimension.
But the location of the game is nothing to get too concerned about.
This Broncos team has the pieces to rule the NFL, but that was true last season, too. The 2012 edition of the Broncos lacked a certain toughness, a certain focus.
Losing to Mr. Irritating, otherwise known as Philip Rivers, and the Chargers should jolt this team to attention. This inept performance by the Broncos might be a crucial step toward becoming truly mighty.
Greatness is required to march to the Super Bowl. Where the games are played ranks as a secondary concern.
Early in 2013, the Baltimore Ravens invaded Foxboro for the AFC Title Game and defeated the wind, Brady's arm and Belichick's brain.
Two seasons ago, the New York Giants traveled to San Francisco for the NFC Title Game. Both the Ravens and Giants later ruled the NFL.
The message is clear:
Home-field advantage in the NFL playoffs is overrated.
Travel to the 2005 AFC Title Game. The Broncos were roaring after defeating Brady and the Patriots. The Broncos were playing in front of happy, hopeful fans. Quarterback Jake Plummer was ready to silence all of his many critics.
The Broncos lost to the Steelers.
A year ago, Denver was rolling through one of the most dominating runs in Colorado sports history. The Broncos won 11 straight games and were seldom challenged, or even much bothered, as they motored toward a highly probable journey to the Super Bowl.
We all know what happened when the Ravens arrived at Mile High on an historically cold January afternoon. The Broncos were sloppy and required a sensational performance by kick returner Trindon Holliday to take a late lead.
A lead Rahim Moore allowed to fly over his head.
The Chargers dominated this game Thursday following the Broncos first possession, which was a breezy drive to the end zone. When Manning found Andre Caldwell for a touchdown, yet another rout seemed on the horizon.
But the Chargers responded with intelligent, violent defense, and Rivers was often brilliant on third down and the Broncos trudged away as losers.
Defensive end Shaun Phillips shrugged his shoulders as he stood among a crowd of reporters in the Broncos' locker room.
"I don't know what the problem was," Phillips said. "..But we will be a better team because of this."
His words, while not exactly fresh, are true.
The Broncos will soon gather to watch film of a flawed defense and a suddenly stalled offense.
This stumble should help. It should aid the Broncos as they struggle to become a team that can travel to the Super Bowl whatever the route, home or away.