The Denver Broncos' path from afterthought to Super Bowl favorite took seven years and one weekend.
There might not have been a more anonymous 13-3 team than the Broncos. They had been working to the side of the main stage, up against the Rocky Mountains, quietly winning every game in their forgotten time zone and most of their games elsewhere. They lurked in the shadow of the Indianapolis Colts, then became lost in the blinding glare surrounding the New England Patriots.
All it took was one weekend to whittle the championship contenders to four, and for the Broncos to emerge as the team to beat. Nevada oddsmakers have deemed it so, which was encouraging news across the Denver area, except inside the team's headquarters.
"I'm pretty sure two of their picks are gone already," Broncos right tackle George Foster said. "They've got to pick somebody."
The Broncos were hardly a favorite a few days ago. Despite their regular-season record and the championship resume of coach Mike Shanahan, the postseason vibe in Denver was more of anxiety than confidence. The Broncos were 0-3 in the playoffs since John Elway retired seven years ago.
They broke that losing streak Saturday while ending New England's hope for an unprecedented third consecutive Super Bowl title. But the relief and joy were tempered by the thought of facing the Colts in Indianapolis, where the Broncos had meekly fallen in the playoffs two years in a row.
But as the Broncos and their fans watched with increasing curiosity, the No. 6-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers beat the top-seeded Colts. The Broncos became the surprise hosts for the American Football Conference championship game. They are 9-0 at Invesco Field this season and are 4-0 in conference title games in Denver.
The Colts-Steelers game had a huge audience in Denver, peaking in the fourth quarter with a 53 rating (percentage of households watching) and a 76 share (percentage of television sets in use tuned to the game). Denver television stations filmed safety Nick Ferguson watching the game at home, capturing his glee, his shock and his relief as the Colts appeared to lose, come back, and lose again.
The result set off unexpected glee in Denver, instantly transforming a here-we-go-again gloom about going to Indianapolis to a here-we-go-again excitement about going to Detroit and returning to the Super Bowl for the franchise's seventh time. An hour after the game, about 15,000 tickets went on sale in Denver. They were purchased almost instantly. Many were placed for sale on eBay; on Monday, some asking prices approached US$1,000.
"I don't think we're that much more talented than we've been in recent years," said kicker Jason Elam, a Bronco since 1993. "But the chemistry is there, and things have gone our way."
Now, the secret of what the Broncos have been concocting is being spilled across the country. People are about to rediscover Shanahan, who led the Broncos to back-to-back championships in the 1997 and 1998 seasons but had not won a postseason game since, until beating New England.
"It is kind of nice being under the radar than being talked about all the time," Shanahan said.
Those unfamiliar with the new championship favorite will find a largely anonymous bunch, far different than the late 1990s Broncos featuring Elway, Terrell Davis, Shannon Sharpe, Ed McCaffrey, Bill Romanowski and Steve Atwater.