John Elway has been down this lonely road before, trudging through the tunnel in deafening silence after a stunning loss at home as the AFC's prohibitive Super Bowl favorite following a 13-3 regular season.
It happened to Elway the quarterback after the 1996 season when Denver lost to Jacksonville 30-27. It occurred again for Elway the executive in January when the Broncos were beaten 38-35 by Baltimore in the divisional round.
Elway rebounded the first time to win back-to-back Super Bowls. He said the pain of that pratfall against the Jaguars was the impetus to make them into champions.
"It was a great incentive for us to come back and have an even better year the following year," Elway said.
After engineering a $125 million offseason spending spree and acquiring wide receiver Wes Welker and massive right guard Louis Vasquez — to help new center Manny Ramirez fend off the likes of Ravens nose tackle Haloti Ngata — Elway is aiming for history to repeat itself after this latest heartbreak.
Five things to watch for as the Broncos kick off the season Thursday night against the champion Ravens:
ROAD RAVENS: Joe Flacco looms larger than life in Denver, and not just because he engineered the stunning playoff upset with his 70-yard touchdown throw to Jacoby Jones that tied it at 35 with 31 seconds left in regulation.
The NFL's marketing machine put up gigantic banners of Flacco alongside Peyton Manning on the Broncos' stadium to promote the league's first game of the 2013 season.
Fans are furious, Manning is miffed and Flacco is flummoxed.
Still, Flacco reasoned, "being hated is not a bad thing."
This flag flap could have been avoided had baseball's Orioles moved their game Thursday night to accommodate the champs for a customary home kickoff.
"I'm not too worried about it," Flacco said. "It's not like they're taking a home game away from us. They're just making us play on the road maybe earlier than we wanted to."
ELVIS RETURNS: "Doom & Gloom" is what Elvis Dumervil and Von Miller called themselves in Denver, where the Pro Bowl pass rushers combined for 29½ of the Broncos' league-leading 52 sacks in 2012.
Dumervil signed with the Ravens in free agency after his infamous fax foul-up in Denver led to his release by the Broncos.
He won't see Miller on Thursday night because Denver's All-Pro linebacker is serving a six-game drug suspension.
"He's like a younger brother," Dumervil said. "We've spoken. We talk all the time. He's dealing with tough times and he'll fight through it."
RAHIM'S REDEMPION: Safety Rahim Moore is out to make amends for the most memorable mistake in Denver's playoff loss, when he mistimed his jump on Flacco's heave to Jones.
"I haven't seen it from him one snap or one second where he's dwelled on that," Broncos secondary coach Cory Undlin said. "If anything, he's used it as motivation."
Veteran cornerback Champ Bailey appreciates Moore's accountability but noted there were plenty of goats in that game.
"He wasn't the guy that put us in that situation," Bailey said. "So, we've all got to own that one."
RAVENS REBUILT: For the first time in the Ravens' 18-year existence, Ray Lewis isn't manning middle linebacker. Daryl Smith, who signed a free agent deal in June, is the veteran replacement. He's a sure tackler entering his 10th season and could help provide some of the veteran presence the Ravens lost.
Smith was part of a Ravens defensive revamp as they also said goodbye to starters Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Paul Kruger and Cary Williams, and hello to Dumervil, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears and Michael Huff.
Flacco parlayed his fantastic playoff run into a six-year, $120.6 million contract, but also lost his two favorite targets as receiver Anquan Boldin was traded and tight end Dennis Pitta is sidelined with a fractured hip.
RECORD RETURNER: As a former special teams coordinator, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he had "reluctant admiration" for Trindon Holliday, who piled up an NFL-record 248 yards in returns against the Ravens in January.
Denver's diminutive returner became the first NFL player to take back both a punt and a kickoff for TDs in a playoff game. Those touchdowns were the longest punt (90 yards) and kickoff (104 yards) returns for scores ever in the postseason.
Of course, Holliday was a footnote when Jones' tying TD grab made him the star instead.
Otherwise, it might have been Holliday and not Jones putting his fingerprints on the Lombardi Trophy, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel's late show and then prancing across the floor with Karina Smirnoff on "Dancing With The Stars."
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