DENVER – He was a veteran deemed expendable by his old team when the Denver Broncos came calling, figuring a dose of veteran savvy in the backfield might help them get where they were trying to go.
Unlike Peyton Manning, however, strong safety Mike Adams didn't know how to navigate the road to the Super Bowl. In fact, he had never even been to the playoffs.
The ninth-year veteran spent five of those years with the Cleveland Browns, a team in a near-constant state of turmoil, rebuilding, hiring, firing and, of course, losing.
On Sunday, it will be Adams going against his old team, which is guaranteed another losing record, while his new team is taking him on his first ride to the playoffs, with many signs pointing toward a deep run.
Adams still has many good friends in Cleveland. But this is football. It's a business. And like Manning, Adams is in his 30s. He knows he doesn't have that many more chances at a Super Bowl ring.
"I don't feel sorry for them at all," Adams said. "Ever since I got there, they've been trying to rebuild. At some point, you just move forward. But that's them. I'm here. It's different now. I'm happy. I'm content."
The Broncos (11-3) have had their playoff spot wrapped up for three weeks now and are looking at bigger things. They are slotted into the No. 2 seed in the AFC and with a win over Cleveland (5-9) and next week against an even worse team, Kansas City, they'll have a first-round bye in the playoffs.
The Broncos are on a roll: Nine-game winning streak, only team in the league with offense (fifth) and defense (fourth) each ranked in the top five. Heck, they even resolved one of their few weaknesses — turnovers — last week, going without one for the first time in 21 games, including the playoffs. Their turnover margin is now even after languishing in the red most of the season.
Their goal of showing improvement every week has, by almost all measures, been reached. What more could there be to improve upon?
"What's the difference between getting better and getting a lot better?" said Manning, who last week surpassed 4,000 yards passing for the 12th time in his career. "It's just improvement. You want to improve and you want to try to keep winning at the same time."
With Manning setting the tone, the Broncos have shown a remarkably disciplined penchant for staying on point, not looking ahead and treating the next team on the schedule like the '72 Dolphins no matter what the record. In most cases, that record hasn't been good. During the nine-game winning streak, the Broncos have beaten only two teams that currently have winning records. Last week's 34-17 win over Baltimore (9-5) was one of the few true litmus tests during the stretch. The Browns? Well, they had won three in a row before last week's 38-21 loss to Washington.
"I've said all year long, we don't look at teams' records, we look at the tape and they're very capable," coach John Fox said, repeating one of his most-used bromides.
And, in fact, there are signs that Cleveland could be building for a brighter future.
With two games to go, Brandon Weeden, a quarterback the Broncos considered drafting had the Manning deal not worked out, has 3,281 yards — seventh most of any rookie in NFL history.
Meanwhile, rookie running back Trent Richardson, the third pick in the draft, has 11 rushing touchdowns, surpassing the rookie record set by another fairly famous Brown — Jim Brown.
Coach Pat Shurmur, who may be coaching his last games in Cleveland, is being careful of setting up the Broncos as a measuring stick for his team. The Browns are 13-point underdogs.
"You add 'em up at the end and you decide how the year went," Shurmur said. "Unfortunately, we're one of 20 teams that won't be in the playoffs, so what we need to do is make this the best week of preparation we can, and we need to get on a plane and play winning football."
Over his eight years before arriving in Denver, Adams was only part of one winning team — the 2007 Browns, who went 10-6 but missed the playoffs. The last time he played for a championship was when he was the captain of the University of Delaware team that won the Division I-AA title.
That was in 2003.
He's hoping for another kind of championship in February 2013.
"We dream of the confetti coming down," Adams said. "Going a whole career and not going to the playoffs, sometimes you try to set goals a little lower. You say, 'I hope I make the playoffs now.' But now that we're going to the playoffs, now the goals are set higher, especially for this team."
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