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Ramsey: Broncos have reason for worry - and hope - against Patriots

January 17, 2016 Updated: January 18, 2016 at 12:11 pm
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Denver running back C.J. Anderson dives into the endzone from 1-yard line for a touchdown against Pittsburgh to give the Broncos a 20-13 lead in the fourth quarter of the AFC Divisional Playoff game Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

DENVER - More is required.

The Broncos barely escaped the Steelers, a team competing with a damaged quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) and without the NFL's best receiver (Antonio Brown). The Broncos, pushed to the edge of extinction after three blasé quarters, were clutch and mighty in the fourth quarter.

The Broncos must play the entire AFC title game the way they played the fourth quarter against the Steelers. They must, that is, if they hope to defeat The Evil Empire of the East, sometimes known as the New England Patriots.

The Broncos know this truth, even if they won't speak this truth.

Cornerback Aqib Talib was half talking, half singing after the 23-16 victory. He wanted everyone to know he's not concerned how the Broncos win, as long as they win.

"We could care less how they go," he said. "We could care less how they go."

He paused.

"We could care less how they go," he said, in case anyone had missed his point. "I'm proud, man. I'm proud."

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He should be proud. Yes, the Steelers were diminished by injury, but they were led by Roethlisberger, who carried a 15-8 playoff record into Sunday's windy wrestling match. The Broncos toppled one of the NFL's all-time greats. This ranks as an impressive accomplishment, even if the all-time great was hindered by a bum throwing shoulder.

But Talib and his teammates also should be worried. The Patriots arrive in Denver on their fifth straight trip to the AFC title game. They are led by coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, and I could make a strong, fact-based case that both men are the best ever at what they do.

"We'll start thinking about the Patriots on Wednesday," Talib said.

Get real, Aqib. We all know the Broncos started thinking about the Patriots about a minute after the Steelers were vanquished.

There is considerable reason for hope. The Bronco defenders were again ferocious, and defense rules in January and February.

And Peyton Manning, football's old man, awoke just in time to rescue what is likely his Final Hurrah.

This was not Manning at his finest. Not even close. But it was Manning at his most patient. He outlasted the Steelers' defense for his 12th win in 25 playoff games. He can even his career playoff record next week with a victory over his career-long tormentors.

We saw, on consecutive plays, Manning's worst and best. With 8:44 left, Manning threw a looping pass out of the shotgun in the general direction of Emmanuel Sanders. This wobbly throw, which resembled a wounded vulture, revealed everything lacking in Manning, circa 2016. This pass was headed straight to the hands of Steelers cornerback William Gay.

Sanders once batted down passes as a superlative high school defensive back in Bellville, Texas. He pounced on Manning's errant throw, swatting the ball away from Gay.

He saved Manning.

He saved the season.

Next play, Manning threw a fastball down the middle to Bennie Fowler. Manning could have gone to Demaryius Thomas, the $14 million man. He instead looked to Fowler, who will earn $480,000 this season.

The pass barely eluded the hands of cornerback Mike Mitchell and arrived safely in Fowler's arms for a 31-yard gain.

"Peyton has a lot of trust in me," Fowler said quietly. "He trusted me on 3rd and 12. It means a lot."

For three quarters, Manning barely remained above water. His receivers dropped a half-dozen passes, but Manning looked ancient and lost, collecting only 146 yards passing.

In the fourth quarter, he revived, completing 4 of 6 passes for 76 yards. The laser to Fowler ranks among the most crucial passes of his long career.

The fourth-quarter version of Manning looked ready to conquer the Patriots. The first- through third-quarter version of Manning will direct the Broncos to a double-digit loss.

Manning, his body battered, lost his starting job after nine games. He watched six games on TV and from the bench. His long NFL ride looked over.

He refused to surrender. His reward is the chance to lead an oddly constructed contraption known as the Broncos to the Super Bowl.

He followed three baffling, frustrating, underachieving quarters with a wise, precise fourth quarter.

The Broncos will require four of those dazzling quarters to conquer the Patriots.

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