Denver Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan grabbed his clipboard and looked to the domed sky for the football gods to show him mercy. While all of this was happening, Marvin Harrison got up off the ground and ran another thirty yards to paydirt....untouched.
This mental gaffe in the 2004 AFC Wildcard game rings out in memory as one of the most embarrassing plays in recent Broncos history. Peyton Manning would go on to throw five touchdowns that afternoon and to the Denver faithful, watching the final three quarters of this game was like meticulously removing every fingernail off of your hands. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Disgusting. Devastating. These words don't even come close to doing justice to how the team and the fans felt after the 41-10 blowout that January.
Fast forward approximately one year: same place, same teams, same result. Not to be outdone, by himself, Manning threw for 360 yards by the time halftime arrived. He would go on to achieve a record 145.7 passer rating and an equally impressive second all-time best 457 yards passing for the game.
Cornerback Roc Alexander looked like he had lead spikes on and Reggie Wayne ran figure eights around the Denver secondary. The Broncs were down 31-3 at halftime and Shanahan could only wish there was a Reset button on this game. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Disgusting. Devastating. Is the Broncos-Colts history starting to make any sense to you?
Mike Shanahan hates to lose. You can see it even after pre-season scrimmages. He was the kind of kid who found a corner during recess and practiced Connect Four sequences against himself so not to lose ever again. One can only imagine the hurt and dismay he had after these two playoff losses in back to back years.
Factor in the Pittsburgh loss from last year and you've got yourself a man who is on the brink of eating his defensive playbook and pulling a Forrest Gump cross-country run the next time one of these games happens. Lucky for Denver fans, Shanahan has spent plenty a sleepless night dreaming about taking the field against high-powered offenses in big games.
The Broncos have made a concerted effort in the last few years to move towards being a more defensive minded team. It started with the Champ Bailey trade and the John Lynch signing. Then came Darrent Williams, D.J. Williams and Dominique Foxworth in the subsequent drafts. Then the "Browncos" hopped on a charter flight and joined the rejuvenated "Orange Crush" rebuilding effort.
In the blink of an eye (or three years worth of blinks) the Broncos had suddenly become a team that gives up touchdowns less often than Bill Parcells gives up smiles. They come into the Indianapolis game only allowing two touchdowns in six games. Teams aren't even attempting passes towards Bailey's side of the field and the linebacking trio of Gold, Wilson and Williams moves in unison like an orange sea of hornets on the attack. Truly, the Broncos have become what Mike Shanahan looked up to the RCA Dome ceiling for on those afternoons in January - a defensive powerhouse.
But, just as the little Shanahan who practiced Connect Four sequences against himself found, there comes a time when a real opponent takes the place of hypothesis. The real test comes this Sunday. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Digusting. Devastating. We can only hope that these are the words Peyton Manning is mumbling to himself as he hops on his chartered flight back to Indianapolis.
T.C. James is a lifelong Broncos fan and a Division II college scout on the East Coast who writes for numerous sports publications. You might recognize James as a frequent poster on our Broncos Hardcore Message Board as "vancejohnson82." You can e-mail James at email@example.com.