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Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) calls an audible at the line of scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers in the first quarter of an NFL AFC division playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kragthorpe: Broncos hope secondary comes to fore vs. Patriots

With Denver defense’s tendency to wobble, it’s all on veteran quarterback Peyton Manning.

First Published Jan 17 2014 09:55 am • Last Updated Mar 24 2014 11:34 pm

The Denver Broncos lived with a crushing defeat for exactly one year. By beating San Diego last weekend, the Broncos moved beyond last January’s overtime loss to Baltimore as a No. 1 playoff seed and gave themselves a shot at the team’s first Super Bowl berth of the post-John Elway era.

In advance of Sunday’s AFC championship game vs. New England, a look at the Broncos:

At a glance

Sunday’s conference title games

O AFC championship

» New England at Denver, 1 p.m., Ch. 2

NFC championship

» San Francisco at Seattle, 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13

Editor’s note

This is the last in a series previewing Sunday’s NFL championship game contestants. Saturday » Denver Broncos

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Team’s theme

Once they acquired an elite quarterback and it became evident that he resembled the Peyton Manning of old, the Broncos have believed they could return to the Super Bowl. They’re almost there.

How they got here

The Broncos went 13-3 to earn the AFC’s No. 1 seed and beat San Diego 24-17 in a divisional playoff game, holding on after building a 17-0 lead through three quarters.

Super Bowl-bound if

story continues below
story continues below

Manning outplays Tom Brady. As Manning points out, quarterbacks never truly oppose one another, but that’s not stopping anyone from saying the QBs will decide this game. Denver’s running game is complementary, but that’s all.

Homeward-bound if

Denver has trouble protecting a lead. The Broncos blew a 24-0 advantage in an overtime loss at New England in November and should have dominated San Diego, only to have its defense wobble in the fourth quarter.

Biggest variable

The Broncos’ secondary. The defense was outstanding overall against the Chargers until cornerback Chris Harris was lost to a knee injury. His replacement, Quentin Jammer, looked completely lost on some big pass plays, and you had better believe Brady will be trying to exploit him.

Best player

Manning. At 37, he’s remarkable to watch. Opponents have sacked him only 20 times in 17 games, and he rarely scrambles. Yet he’s a master at moving around in the pocket and delivering the ball quickly and effectively.

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