John Elway has been down this lonely road before.
The quarterback-turned-front office executive has now been a part of two playoff runs that ended not in the confetti-filled celebration expected of the AFC's No. 1 seed but with a painful introspection about what all went wrong in a stunningly early exit from the postseason party.
Elway experienced it as a player in 1996, when the Denver Broncos were upset at home by the Jacksonville Jaguars, 30-27, then bounced back to win the next two Super Bowls.
"I know it didn't take long," to get over that loss, Elway said Monday, "because I knew we felt like we had a good football team coming back — as we do now."
Elway once again finds himself picking up the pieces, along with coach John Fox, after one of the most disheartening losses in the franchise's history, their 38-35 defeat in double-overtime to the Baltimore Ravens on Saturday night.
Elway pledged to dissect the defeat to extract every possible lesson, after which he'll have to decide where to upgrade a roster that jelled so well during a 13-3 regular season but whose 11-game winning streak and home-field advantage were wasted when a heavy underdog outplayed and outcoached them.
Elway said the key was to not get defensive and "hopefully we're back in this situation again and we'll have looked at it the right way and learned from the situation."
The playoff pratfall won't necessarily weigh heavier than the regular season in Elway's evaluations, but he did say playoff pressure reveals a lot: "As I've said, you make your money during the regular season. You make your legacy in the postseason."
First things first.
Elway said he'll sign off next month on the next two years and $40 million in Peyton Manning's contract after he passes his physical. Manning showed no ill effects of the nerve problem in his neck that led to four operations and his departure from Indianapolis, putting up the second-best numbers of his 14 healthy seasons in the NFL.
Another high priority is locking up his blind-side protector, All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady, who rejected a five-year proposal that included $28 million in guarantees last summer. If they can't reach an agreement this time, Denver will put the franchise tag on the three-time Pro Bowler, roughly tripling his salary to about $10 million next season.
Elway also must decide whether free agents Brandon Stokley, Justin Bannan, Kevin Vickerson, Keith Brooking, Jimmy Leonhard and Dan Koppen will have roles in this rebound after serving as key contributors this season.
Then, there's the matter of getting over this last loss itself, one in which Manning had three costly turnovers, fellow All-Pro Champ Bailey got burned for two long touchdown passes and Fox made a series of debatable decisions that he was grilled about Monday in his season-ending news conference.
"As a coach and, I know John as a competitor, you relive it, you redo it, you second-guess, you I don't know how to explain it, but it stings," Fox said. "They call them scars. You remember it because it doesn't go away, like most scars. And you learn from it. You say, 'I made a mistake ... I'm going to fix it and then not let it happen again.'"
That's precisely what second-year safety Rahim Moore said after he misjudged Joe Flacco's 70-yard prayer to Jacoby Jones with no timeouts and 31 seconds left to tie the game at 35.
After the game, a choked-up Moore put the loss squarely on his shoulders and vowed to atone for his big blunder.
"That's definitely going to motivate me," Moore said. "I'm going to keep my head high and next time the opportunity comes, I'm just going to make it for my team. I'll just make the play. I'm just sorry the way the season ended because it ended all on me, which I never would expect. I apologize to all the fans and people who love the Broncos because this wasn't what they deserved. And I'll get it right."
Fox said he stood by his decision to play for overtime after Jacoby's touchdown staggered the Broncos — and Elway concurred. Given the ball at his 20 with 31 seconds, two timeouts and one of the best quarterbacks in the game, the Broncos coach decided to run out the clock and head to overtime, so Manning took a knee.
"I thought it was the right thing at that time," said Elway, sounding nothing like the go-for-broke quarterback he once was. "I think with where the team was mentally and the situation we were in, I thought that it was a good move."
Even 48 hours after the game, that single decision remained the most hotly debated of the many Fox, Manning and the Broncos made in their gaffe-filled loss to the Ravens. The second-guessing only got more intense Sunday after Atlanta moved the ball 41 yards in 12 seconds to set up the game-winning field goal in its 30-28 victory over Seattle.
But, Fox said, Denver's situation was nowhere near what the Falcons faced. The Falcons were losing and had no other choice. They were playing in a dome. The Broncos had just given up a game-tying 70-yard heave and were standing on the sideline in disbelief. The temperature was below 10 degrees. Manning had thrown just two long passes all night.
Fox said the Broncos were like a prizefighter who was staggered just seconds from the bell, so the smart thing to do wasn't to go for a haymaker themselves but regroup for the next round.
Fox also stood by his other important strategic decision. A few minutes before kneeling on the ball, Denver was up by seven and trying to grind out the clock. Despite being down to their third-string running back, 188-pound Ronnie Hillman, the Broncos called three straight running plays, including a run off right guard on third-and-7 that went for no gain. That ran the clock down to 1:15 and made Baltimore burn all its timeouts.
But three plays after a punt, Flacco threw that improbable 70-yard touchdown pass over Moore.
Fox said he played the percentages on all the calls, noting there was a 99.9 percent chance of winning when the Ravens had the ball on the 30 with 41 seconds left.
In the end, all the analytics didn't matter. They simply didn't make the plays they had to keep a terrific season going.
"This is something that the players will remember for a long time," Elway said. "They'll never forget what happened on Saturday. They'll never forget that and I think that we'll use that as we did in '96. It was a great incentive for us to come back and have an even better year the following year like we did in '97. Like I said, it's how we approach it, how we use it, how we learn from it. And it gives us an opportunity to be that much better next year."
Notes: Fox dismissed any notion of Bailey moving from cornerback to safety next season. ... Elway said the Broncos view rookie Omar Bolden as a potential starting CB.
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