ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- No team has become more accustomed to close-game situations than the Denver Broncos.
Sunday's 20-18 win was their NFL-record 11th by seven points or fewer, and followed the script of wins over the Ravens, Chiefs, Vikings, Raiders, Bears, Patriots and Steelers, in which the defense had to make a single, game-deciding play in the final moments.
This time, it was defensive back Aqib Talib's deflection of a Tom Brady pass on a two-point conversion with 12 seconds remaining. The Broncos cranked up pressure on Brady once again, forced a throw under duress, and their cornerbacks took it from there, with Bradley Roby's interception finishing off the play.
The flow of the game was similar to the Broncos' 17-15 Week 11 win at Chicago, when Denver's defense thought it had a game-clinching stop with an eight-point lead only to have to go out once again after the offense quickly gave the ball back. The Broncos gave up a touchdown, but stiffened on the two-point conversion to secure a narrow escape.
"I think it's pretty typical. It's been happening all year," said safety T.J. Ward. "We trained for them. We're game-trained for these type of things. It's fitting it comes down to that, and we make the play."
The Broncos' experience and proficiency in these situations mark a dramatic turnaround from recent years, when they would rack up wins by a wide margin, but often lacked the mettle to succeed in tough postseason situations. That led general manager John Elway to make his oft-cited "kicking and screaming" comment a day after he parted ways with former head coach John Fox.
And the last team to win at least nine games by seven points or fewer en route to the Super Bowl? That was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts -- the only team Peyton Manning has led to a Vince Lombardi Trophy.
--No coach in recent memory had taken a head-coaching job with the immediate pressure to win that Gary Kubiak had when he took the Broncos' reins last January.
Not even Norv Turner in San Diego had to deal with the scrutiny that was immediately placed on Kubiak a year ago. Turner inherited a 14-2 Chargers team from the deposed Marty Schottenheimer, but that was not a team accustomed to success; in fact, the Chargers had not even won a playoff game in the 12 seasons prior to Turner's arrival.
Kubiak, on the other hand, was asked to push a team that had already won four consecutive division titles over the top. Anything less than a season that ended at Levi's Stadium in Super Bowl 50, and his first season would be considered a failure.
"The hot seat Gary stepped into was hotter than any seat in the league," Broncos general manager John Elway said. "I mean, we'd had great success before he got here and for him to come in, do what he's done, you know we had tough situation because he's done a tremendous job of managing the quarterback situation."
That situation could have become a powder keg, but the 20-20 vision that retrospection provides shows that Kubiak handled the balance between Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler as well as possible. The Broncos were 5-2 with Osweiler as the starter, and while there were some hiccups -- specifically second-half fades and a spate of turnovers in the final three weeks of the regular season -- they found out that Osweiler can start, and win, which makes their decision as to whether to give him a contract extension this offseason clearer.
Meanwhile, Manning rehabilitated, and when the offense needed what Kubiak called "a spark" in Week 17, the 18-year veteran came in and has guided the offense ever since. Although he has only been steady and unspectacular, he hasn't thrown an interception since returning, a stark contrast to the 17 picks he tossed in his first nine starts before a foot injury sidelined him.
Now Kubiak sits just one win away from his first Super Bowl win as a head coach, guiding the team for which he played nine seasons and served as offensive coordinator for 11. The 2-14 season he endured in Houston in 2013 seems a world away, and now he could be poised to be the next retread coach whose second stop proves to be far more successful than his first.
"It means the world to me," Kubiak said. "John gave me a chance to come back to my football home, and I'm just so proud to be part of this organization and this football team."
--OLB DeMarcus Ware had a second consecutive strong game, hitting Tom Brady seven times, which included a half-sack that he split with Von Miller. He will play in the Super Bowl for the first time.
--OLB Von Miller had the game of his life in his biggest game to date, sacking Tom Brady 2.5 times and intercepting him when he faded back into coverage on a three-man rush in the second quarter.
--DE Derek Wolfe has not played like a player who just signed a life-altering contract. Instead, he's played two of the best games of his career since signing a four-year extension on Jan. 15. Wolfe hit Tom Brady four times, including once for a sack, and helped stifle New England's ground game, making it a non-factor.
--S T.J. Ward says he will play in Super Bowl 50 after he suffered a sprained ankle in the second half Sunday. Ward tested the ankle, but did not go back into the game, fearing he would cause more harm than assistance.
--S Darian Stewart says he will play in two weeks after suffering a sprained right MCL on Sunday. With Stewart and Ward down, the Broncos were forced to use Josh Bush and Shiloh Keo late in the game.
--TE Owen Daniels paced the offense with two touchdown catches, beating Patriots LB Jamie Collins with footwork that created separation on both scores. Daniels will play in his first Super Bowl on Feb. 7.
--CB Chris Harris Jr. battled through a shoulder injury to play 82 snaps, more than anyone else on Denver's defense. He saw some work at safety late in the game when the Broncos were down to just two healthy safeties in their dime package.
--P Britton Colquitt had perhaps his best game, dropping four of his nine punts inside the New England 15-yard line. The poor field position that resulted from his work limited New England's options and helped the Broncos maintain control of the game in the second and field quarters.