It was bad enough for the Denver Broncos that they lost the most lopsided Super Bowl in 21 years in February.
But that’s not the biggest problem a Super Bowl participant faces. A more difficult task the following season is going deep in the playoffs, much less reaching the Super Bowl.
No team has played in consecutive Super Bowls since New England in 2003-04. And of the 11 teams that have played in the Super Bowl since, the champions have gone 0-4 in the postseason the following year, the runners-up are 5-6 and six of the teams did not qualify for the playoffs.
The Broncos, who are 13-point favorites over the Chiefs on Sunday, gave little indication in their 31-24 season-opening victory over Indianapolis that they aren’t primed to repeat as AFC champions. But Broncos coach John Fox, who has taken two franchises to the Super Bowl — Carolina in 2003 and Denver last year — understands the difficulty in establishing a dynasty.
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“There’s always a couple of surprise teams. There’s always injuries. There’s just so many dynamics involved,” said Fox, whose team was beaten 43-8 by Seattle in the Super Bowl. “Your mind-set. The personnel changes. … There’s free agency. It’s just hard to keep continuity, I’d say that first and foremost.”
Super Bowl teams trying to repeat run into myriad obstacles, beginning with the natural complacency or letdown after either winning or losing the biggest game of the players’ careers. Many of those players who contribute to a Super Bowl effort are in their contract years and want to be handsomely rewarded. The salary cap doesn’t allow clubs to keep everyone.
In the Broncos’ case, they lost wide receiver Eric Decker (1,288 yards, 11 touchdowns), running back Knowshon Moreno (1,038 yards, 10 touchdowns), defensive ends Shaun Phillips (10 sacks) and Robert Ayers (51/2 sacks), cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (three interceptions), guard Zane Beedles and linebacker Wesley Woodyard in free agency.
But in what might have been a case of the rich getting richer, the Broncos replaced Decker with Emmanuel Sanders, a speedster from Pittsburgh whom the Chiefs were pursuing heavily, and rebuilt their defense with pass-rushing end DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward.
Of course, the fortunes of the Broncos are tied to quarterback Peyton Manning, who won his fifth league MVP last year after leading the NFL in nearly every significant passing category.
Manning led Indianapolis to a Super Bowl championship in 2006, but the Colts were bounced out of the playoffs in their first postseason game in 2007. Manning’s Colts lost to New Orleans in the Super Bowl after the 2009 season and lost their only playoff game in 2010.
“I’m not sure I have the answer,” Manning said. “Sometimes other teams improve. Maybe you don’t have the best team the year you don’t get there. If it was easy, the same team would probably go every year. But there’s a lot of good teams out there and teams make moves, division teams get better. To me, it proves how hard it is to get there and how hard it is to win it.”
Denver’s deep roster has also benefited from the return of injured players such as left tackle Ryan Clady, linebacker Von Miller, safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter, cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive end Derek Wolfe, all of whom missed the Super Bowl.
Could it be possible the Broncos will be even better in 2014?
“It’s still early in the season,” Manning said. “Adjustment is the key word when you have a new receiver like Emmanuel Sanders. It takes time. He and I have spent a lot of time working, trying to get on the same page. That’s a season-long project.
“You’ve got guys like (tight end) Julius Thomas, this is his second year and he’s trying to take a step up. Montee Ball is the starting running back. … It’s different than when you’re coming off the bench.”
Newly signed Chiefs defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson spent the past four seasons with the Broncos, though he missed the final five games and playoffs because of a hip injury. Vickerson was released by the Broncos in the final roster cutdown and said the Broncos were working with a purpose in training camp.
“They’ve got an us-against-the-world mentality right now,” Vickerson said. “They know everybody is going to be gunning for them because they made the Super Bowl run last year … and were tops in the division. It’s right that everybody is coming at them.”
The Broncos also finished the 2012 season in excruciating fashion, losing at home to Baltimore in double overtime in the AFC playoffs. So if they could bounce back from something like that and reach the Super Bowl, there isn’t any reason to think they can’t do it again.
“Unless you’re the one team that’s hoisting that trophy, especially if you were a playoff team and you lost your last game … whether it’s the Super Bowl, divisional round, championship game, whatever,” said Fox, “that creates a fire in your belly whether you’re a player, coach, personnel, owner to reload and start again.
“That’s the mind-set of pretty much anybody in the league regardless of how their season ended.”