DENVER — The highway signs from the airport flash "Go Broncos!" The billboards around town read "United in Orange." But for the NFL team in this city, the writing is on the wall.
Anything short of a Lombardi Trophy will be a mile-high disappointment.
For the Denver Broncos, the memory of last season's loss in the divisional round still stings. Baltimore scored late in the game on a bomb to Jacoby Jones — one the top-seeded Broncos misplayed — and the Ravens wound up winning in double overtime, and going on to win the Super Bowl.
The expectations are only higher now, after Peyton Manning's historic season — he set NFL records with 5,477 yards passing and 55 touchdowns — and another No. 1 seeding. If he wins two home games, Peyton will find himself at MetLife Stadium, his brother Eli's home field, thisclose to a second Super Bowl ring.
Manning, whose team plays host to San Diego on Sunday, was asked last week if the Broncos have used the bitter taste of last year's meltdown as motivation in these playoffs.
"I think we've kind of used that throughout the season," he said. "We talked about that going into the month of April, with our weightlifting and our off-season training, about using that to fuel you, to make you do an extra set of sprints or an extra set of squads, whatever it may be. We've used it on the practice field.
"I don't think that you just get to this week and you start thinking about it. I think you always want to have something to try to drive you, fuel you and make you better than the year before. I feel like we've done that and, like I said, we're excited to be at this place right now."
Retired quarterback Rich Gannon, a former NFL most valuable player, said Manning is "head and shoulders above the rest of the league in terms of his intelligence."
"There's a couple quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Manning are at the top of my list — where anybody can call plays for those guys, but so much of what they do is what they do at the line of scrimmage. There are entry-level guys, and these guys are like PhDs. They're so involved in the protections and calls and adjustments and hand signals and receivers.… They do it all, and they do it all in the period of about seven to 10 seconds."
However, the Indianapolis Colts and Denver are a combined 9-11 in the postseason with Manning as their starter, including eight one-and-done performances. He shakes off the notion, though, that he's a star with warning-track power, someone who can put up big numbers in the regular season but typically fades when it counts most.
"It's easy to summarize, to take a whole bunch of football seasons and lump them together," Manning said. "I personally don't believe in that theory, how it works. I think each season takes on its own identity and different things occurred along the way at different points of my career, in anybody's career.
"This is the 2013 season, 2014 postseason, and it's its own chapter. We're looking forward to hopefully writing it for a number of more weeks."
Getting past San Diego will be no simple task. The Chargers beat the Broncos at Sports Authority Field last month, 27-20, and they are 6-2 in Denver with Philip Rivers at quarterback. Rivers has thrown for 3,830 yards with 27 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 16 career games against the Broncos, and the Chargers are 10-6 in those.
"[Rivers] and Peyton Manning are almost the same guy," said former NFL quarterback Phil Simms, a CBS color analyst for Chargers-Broncos. "In this offense they do now, it fits him perfectly. He's the orchestrator, and he loves it. Last year, with [former Chargers coach Norv Turner], the last five games of the year, he changed as a quarterback. And that change he made has continued, and even gotten better. He just knows how to play his part in the game."
Along with an improved defense and running game, Rivers led the Chargers to victories in their final four games of the regular season, rescuing a team that was 5-7 and hurtling toward irrelevance. He completed an NFL-best 69.5% of his passes this season.
"He has been deadly accurate," said Gannon, now a CBS analyst. "He made a couple throws in the Kansas City game that I [broadcast] in Week 17… one was a flat route to the left, and the guy was covered like a blanket. [Rivers] put it the only place that he could."
Just as important, Rivers is playing unburdened and unclenched.
"He's just having fun," Gannon said. "He's playing loose, and the whole team is playing with house money. They had to win four straight to even get into the thing."
If the Broncos have their way, the Chargers will be even more relaxed by Sunday night. Headed directly home to watch the rest of the playoffs from their couch.