By Todd Baker
If you’re a Denver Broncos fan, a 13-3 regular season record should strike fear in your heart… or should it?!
The Broncos have finished 13-3 four times in team history. During those seasons they’re a combined 1-4 in playoff games, have been vanquished on the heels of a bye week three times and of course, have never even made it past the AFC championship game.
The Broncos managed to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers in early 1985 at home after a 13-3 regular season. It was the highest win total for the Denver Broncos in team history at the time (in 1977, they did go 12-2). It was John Elway’s first full season as a starter and despite that loss, only two years later the Broncos found themselves in three of the next four Super Bowls. Granted even though those Super Bowls were painful, they certainly marked progress and despite the results, the Broncos had a future Hall of Famer in John Elway.
Eight years later, Mark Brunell and the Jacksonville Jaguars handed a 13-win Broncos team its most humiliating defeat in team history. That loss still stands as one of the biggest upsets since the AFC/NFC merger. It was a terrific performance by a team with a lot of heart battling a superior team that simply looked flat.
Many players on that roster admit they were rusty and playing with one eye on the week to come. Nevertheless, that broken-hearted feeling Denver fans had to endure for the entire off-season was quickly buried the following season after a redemptive 42-17 crushing of the Jaguars in the 1997 AFC Wildcard round. In fact, those bruised egos healed quite nicely following not just a 1998 Super Bowl victory but two consecutive Super Bowl championships.
In 2005, the Broncos were once again 13-3 and finally mustered a victory. Impressively, it came against the then-dynastic New England Patriots, a feat only the New York Giants, New York Jets, Baltimore Ravens and yes, the Peyton Manning-led Indianapolis Colts have accomplished. In fact, it’s worth noting that Denver was the first team to do it in the decade.
The week following, however, Jake Plummer and the Broncos were throttled by a sensational rookie named Ben Roethlisberger at Mile High, 34-17—and it should have been worse. There was no bounce back after that loss. No string of Super Bowls or redemption of any kind. Perhaps, instead of marking the beginning of an era as those other unsuccessful Bronco teams had, this loss marked the end of one. Is it possible to assume based on the history of this franchise that 13-3 is a water-shed of sorts for the Denver Broncos?
Twenty-eight years ago the Broncos had their first 13-3 season and immediately squandered it. They followed it up with three Super Bowl appearances in four years. Sixteen years ago, the Broncos were coming off an 8-8 season in 1995, just like this year’s team. They were the top seed in the AFC playoffs. (Sound familiar?) It was favored to go to the Super Bowl and had a 36-year-old Hall of Famer at Quarterback.
It’s almost like a high school history lesson about Abraham Lincoln and JFK. Despite that stocking defeat, the organization rallied to rack up back-to-back championships, the first and only Super Bowls in the history of the franchise. Only seven years ago, the Mike Shanahan era may have come to a definitive end on the heels of another disappointing 13-3 season. Each 13-3 team seems to mark the beginning or end of something very important to the Denver Broncos football legacy. Will this year’s Bronco team?
As fans marched to their cars through the freezing cold, stunned and confused that Saturday night, they certainly weren’t thinking about franchise turning points. As this week has moved on, I hope they have. It’s hard to imagine this team not coming back in a furious and aggressive manner. With the exception of the running back position and perhaps the tight end spot, it’s hard to argue that this was not one of the better teams in the history of the franchise. Though it was a painful loss that is going to “sting” for the entire off season, that’s what it is supposed to do. This is a new era not just a big loss and now Bronco fans can look forward to the next few years. There are better days ahead… and history to make.