In the quest for a Super Bowl ring, where does an NFL team begin? Behind closed doors, with no coaches allowed. The Broncos become the harshest film critics in America, ripping the mistakes of teammates and demanding accountability.
“We played all right,” Denver linebacker Von Miller said Sunday, after beating Kansas City 17-9. “But all right won’t cut it down the road.”
You might be happy with a victory that qualified as both homely and hard-earned. The Broncos, however, are difficult to please.
“These past couple weeks we’ve been watching the game film together, just the players. Coaches aren’t in there. It’s the player’s job to speak up on what he did wrong, if there’s a mistake he made and what he could do better,” said quarterback Peyton Manning, who passed for 285 yards, yet saw so many drives stall that the Broncos were unable to shake a mangy-mutt of a foe from nipping at their heels until the final minutes.of the fourth quarter.
On a five-star scale, don’t expect the Broncos to give this performance more than a 2.5 in the video room. When the lights go down, the film will play more like the latest installment of “The Twilight Saga” than “Lincoln.” Players will pan the 4.7 yards per carry surrendered to Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles and offensive ineffiency that put Matt Prater in position to miss too many field goals.
That anger? That lack of contentment with victory? That’s a good thing.
The Broncos no longer are grading on a curve.
Rather than the gimmick of a players-only meeting that’s convened by a losing team, the tough love of the film sessions indicates the Broncos are serious about the difficult business of winning. When they gather to critique, freedom of speech is 100 percent and pulling rank is strictly forbidden.
“Everybody is held accountable, from the top to the bottom. We take our stripes off in the defensive meeting room and we go after each other. That is what allows us to get better,” Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard said.
Denver is now measuring itself only against the NFL elite. Every game is a chance to improve. If the Broncos aren’t better come January than they are now, some other team will be fitted for championship rings.
“If we want to win in the playoffs, we’re not even close. We have to get better,” Denver cornerback Champ Bailey said. “We can’t allow a team to run on us like Kansas City did. We didn’t allow a touchdown. But that’s not going to cut it in the playoffs, especially on the road. Every time the home team runs for five yards and a first down in the playoffs, you’ve got the crowd yelling. And you don’t want that.”
The AFC West is won. With the certitude of a math professor making squeaky chalk marks on a blackboard, any way you calculate it, the division title and a playoff berth belongs to the Broncos, who won for the sixth consecutive time.
By the method Denver keeps score, however, the Broncos run near the back of a four-team pack. Nothing counts except a trip to the Super Bowl. They are battling Houston, Baltimore and New England for the inside track found only on home turf during the playoffs.
After too many NFL seasons when the Broncos spent the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas trying to stay relevant in the Super Bowl discussion, Denver is relearning how to think like a champion.
After failed coach Josh McDaniels made the error of running the organization as if he invented the game, credit John Fox for turning over responsibility to the grown men who actually do the blocking and tackling. Video work led by players, critiqued by players and owned by players, fosters a no-excuses attitude by players.
“It’s not like all of a sudden you can turn a switch on in the playoffs,” Bailey said.
The Chiefs were victory No. 8 on the ledger. Tampa Bay is next on the schedule. The Broncos insist they see nothing else.
But, trust me, from deep inside this tunnel vision, Denver has its eye on a bigger prize.
Manning going home to New Orleans for the Super Bowl?
That could be a wilder party than Mardi Gras.