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Against the odds: Can Broncos buck history, avenge Super Bowl loss?

Against the odds: Can Broncos buck history, avenge Super Bowl loss? Photo: David Bergman/SI

It took him 13 years to worry. Thirteen years, and not a team had come close to doing what Marv Fleming and the Dolphins did in 1972, when they won each and every game en route to a Super Bowl championship. But in 1985, as the calendar turned to November, Fleming and his teammates fretted about the Bears. Chicago won its first 12 games that fall before losing to Miami, of all teams, in late November.

They worried again in 1998, when John Elway’s Broncos won their first 13 games, and in 2005 when Peyton Manning’s Colts did the same. They wrung their hands in 2007 when New England went undefeated until the Super Bowl, and they paced in 2009, when the Saints started 13-0, the Colts 14-0. Green Bay threatened most recently, in 2011, but it too fell, in Week 15 to the Chiefs.

With each near miss, Fleming couldn’t help but lament the thought of his team’s perfect record someday being one of two, one of three, one of many. But after a few teams came close to perfection, the retired tight end began to balk at reports of his teammates’ celebrations. Despite embracing a stranger in a grocery store the night the Giants defeated the Patriots, he has always put the word out: do not pop your champagne in public. Drink it in a closet, he tells teammates, because you’re celebrating your own victory, not this new team’s loss.

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The perfect season has come to define the 1972 Dolphins, and they are fiercely proud that their record has stood alone for 42 years. However, 17-0 isn’t the only mark that Miami team holds onto. It also remains the last Super Bowl loser to rebound with a championship the next year -- and many of the players don’t even have a clue.

Fleming doesn’t quite believe it the first time he’s told: “No one’s done it since us?” he asked. “Really? Well that’s just another record for us, I guess.” When Paul Warfield, a starting wide receiver on the 1972 team, calls, he can barely eke out a hello before asking for confirmation that no, not a single team since has won the Super Bowl the season after losing it. He chuckles at the notion, another piece of history his team didn’t even know it held.

Come Sept. 7, when the Broncos kick off their season against the Colts, Denver will be the latest team hoping to avenge a Super Bowl loss by hoisting the Lombardi Trophy a year later. And after their second preseason game, a 34-0 drubbing of San Francisco, the Broncos’ odds of winning the Super Bowl moved to 5-to-1, putting them in a tie with the Seahawks for the best chance at a championship.

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History begs Vegas’ pardon, though. Twenty-eight of the 43 Super Bowl losers since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 have failed to win a playoff game the following season, with 12 missing the playoffs entirely the next year. Just seven of the 47 previous Super Bowl losers have returned to the big game a season later, and only two have won: the 1971 Cowboys and the Dolphins a year later. In short, history says that the Broncos’ chances at a Super Bowl championship come February are close to nil.

But Peyton Manning and company aren’t listening. In fact, they don’t even want to hear the words Super Bowl, not now. Not until January.

This is a topic that makes the Broncos bristle, that causes the most genial of players to stiffen. Don’t say the words “1972 Dolphins.” Don’t dare utter “Super Bowl.” Tight end Jacob Tamme, who’s come off a Super Bowl loss in Indianapolis, the Broncos’ upset by Baltimore in 2012 and now this second Super Bowl defeat, is particularly aggravated by the discussion of history, by even the hint that he’s looking much past next month.

“I don’t think about [the Super Bowl] until one of y’all asks,” Tamme said. “It’s all about training camp right now, every day, getting better. Look, you can’t get to your big-picture, end result if you don’t focus on every step in front of you. … It’s all about everyday focus.”

The retired Dolphins would applaud Tamme’s approach. Forty-two years later, they can cop to the bitterness of losing to Dallas 24-3, to the way they fed off that disappointment and the criticism they heard from fans and other teams. “They’re an old AFL team,” Warfield parrots all these years later. “They can’t play with the big boys.” (Teams from the old AFL has won just two of the first six Super Bowls, contributing to a sense that the NFL had been the far superior league.) Such perspective takes time, though. In the immediate aftermath of losing, to do what the Broncos are hoping to do, the good ol’ cliché of living one week at a time might just ring true.

“You play them one at a time, and that’s hard to do, but one at a time,” Warfield said. “You take nothing for granted. We learned that you couldn’t take things for granted.”

So if these Broncos have a chip on their shoulder, well, they’re not saying. The Dolphins had one, certainly. Defensive end Bill Stanfill, who today suffers from memory loss and is a plaintiff in the NFL concussion lawsuit, remembers feeding off the disappointment of losing more than anything else from that season. But here are the Broncos of 2014, claiming Seattle is just another team, that playing them twice this fall is pretty much the same as facing the not-so-ferocious Raiders twice each year.

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Denver’s is a subdued urgency. It’s unspoken, but it’s visible, in the mid-practice training camp skirmishes between offense and defense, in Manning’s 15-yard taunting penalty against Houston. The Seahawks were the tougher, louder team last February, and the Broncos took note. A year ago, a defense that was from the start inferior to Denver’s offense and would go on to lose many of its key players didn’t have the gall to chirp or squabble. It didn’t think it was as good as its quarterback and receivers, but now Denver’s defense wants to be the team’s best unit, no matter the records its offense set a season ago.

That’s the thing about these Broncos. Unlike the Dolphins, whom Fleming and Warfield believe were cowed by the pomp and circumstance of the Super Bowl and needed the experience of a loss to understand how to win, Denver was simply battered last season. Sure, plenty of its starters were inexperienced, but the iron fist of Manning kept them focused in New York, and much of the team’s youth was a result of injuries to its starting lineup. In fact, if the Broncos can stay healthy and make it to the Super Bowl, they will have 11 different starters from the group they trotted out last February, thanks to free agent acquisitions and players returning from injuries. The Dolphins in 1972? They made just four changes in their starting lineup between Super Bowls.

“It [is] a motivator because we didn’t finish the Super Bowl the way we wanted to,” Broncos defensive tackle Kevin Vickerson said, “and the guys that didn’t play -- like myself and a couple of other guys -- we’re taking a little bit extra motivation [into the season] just to get back to that point and get back to that game.”

For any team as stacked as the Broncos, health and a dose of luck are the biggest factors in terms of winning in Arizona. Already, Denver has lost starting linebacker Danny Trevathan, who fractured his leg on Aug. 12 and will miss 6-8 weeks, and receiver Wes Welker suffered his third concussion in 10 months on Aug. 23. However, the team expects both players to be at full speed long before midseason, and if Denver’s injury woes can regress to the mean this season, they should be plenty capable of making another run.

“We’re very deep,” cornerback Chris Harris, who missed the Super Bowl with a torn ACL, said. “That’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take all [of our players]… from the No. 1 to the very bottom… to be able to make it to the Super Bowl again.

“We don’t need a reminder [of our loss]. A lot of guys on this team are hungry, and a lot of guys didn’t even get to play in the Super Bowl.”

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So if those Dolphins were motivated by losing, both the game and their focus, these Broncos have a different impetus. They want to give their now-healthy teammates a chance. Harris, Vickerson, defensive end Derek Wolfe, offensive tackle Ryan Clady, safety Rahim Moore, linebacker Von Miller -- the list of men who had to watch the Super Bowl from the sideline goes on and on, and each wants his moment. Their teammates want it for them, and they want it for Manning, because it’s hard to know how many seasons the future Hall of Famer has left.

That’s why the Broncos will insist that they’re thinking about tomorrow rather than yesterday, but no further than next Sunday. Feb. 1, 2015 seems about as far in the future as Jan. 14, 1973 does in the past.

“I don’t really put too much on the past,” coach John Fox said. “When you start letting all that other garbage get in, all it can do is disrupt your focus. … You look out the windshield, and you’ve got that little [rear-view] mirror there, but it’s way smaller than the windshield.”

So if the past is irrelevant, if the string of 41 consecutive teams who couldn’t rebound from Super Bowl losses means nothing, then consider the windshield. If history tells these Broncos anything, it’s to keep their eyes on the road, not the horizon. They can’t listen to newly minted analyst Tony Gonzalez as he predicts a perfect season, just as they had to tune out the Seahawks’ crowing over their victory all offseason.

And while Warfield, Fleming and their teammates are oblivious to the long odds of repeating, the Broncos are indignant. Odds said that Manning shouldn’t return to form after neck surgery; that Harris, an undrafted rookie, shouldn’t be starting. Odds said defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who dropped out of high school to work in a factory, should never have gotten out of his home state of Missouri, that tight end Julius Thomas, a former college basketball star at a mid-major school, should be playing hoops overseas, not starring in the NFL.

“You’re looking at a field full of guys who have defied odds,” Thomas said. “For us to be worried about what the odds are, forget it.”

He’s a little bit angry that the subject must even be broached, that anyone would believe a rebound from that loss impossible. He’s a little bit angry, and when it comes to 42 years of history and the 19 to 20 games that lie ahead, a little bit of angry might be just what the Broncos need.

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