ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Embarrassing headlines. Sidelined superstars. Retooled offences. Shredded defences. It's a wonder the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos made it this far.
Bill Belichick's smarts and Tom Brady's tenacity always seems to trump tribulation.
This season, they brushed aside the Tim Tebow distraction and overcame Aaron Hernandez's arrest and the losses of Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo to put the Patriots (13-4) into the AFC championship for the third straight year.
"I'm sure every team has probably at this point overcome a lot," Brady said. "I know Denver has done a lot of those things, too. They've overcome a lot of things and injuries and so forth. It's just part of the NFL football season.
"To get out there and play 16 weeks and really see where you stand at the end of those 16 weeks, getting to the playoffs, play the best teams and see if you can advance. It's certainly not easy to do. It's very challenging."
Nobody does it better than Brady and Belichick, the best quarterback/coach combo in history with a record 18 playoff wins.
After last year's stumble against Baltimore in the playoffs, John Fox and Peyton Manning also steered the Broncos (14-3) through a minefield to send Denver to its first conference championship in eight years.
"That shock of what happened against the Ravens contributed to this team being able to be as flexible as it has been and survive the adversity that it's gone through," said Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, who led the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowls in the late 1990s and now leads them from the front office.
After losing Elvis Dumervil in the infamous fax fiasco when his renegotiated contract didn't reach team headquarters in time, Elway hit the jackpot in free agency by signing Welker and Louis Vasquez on offence and Shaun Phillips, Terrance Knighton and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on defence.
They helped the Broncos weather an injury epidemic that claimed Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson, Rahim Moore, Derek Wolfe and Chris Harris while rendering captains Champ Bailey and Wesley Woodyard backups for most of the season.
Fox overcame a heart operation that sidelined him for a month and and Manning set a slew of records, including throwing for 55 TDs and 5,447 yards, to help the Broncos become the first 600-point team in league history.
The Broncos did it despite losing blindside protector Ryan Clady in Week 2 and being anchored by a converted guard who hadn't played a full season at centre in 14 years.
So, Manning sits just one win shy of returning to the Super Bowl just two years after he was jettisoned by the Indianapolis Colts following four neck surgeries that strengthened his resolve but weakened his throwing arm.
"You don't take it for granted," Manning said, "especially when you've been through an injury, been through a major change and you're in the home stretch of your career."
-- The Associated Press