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Wild-card results add to Broncos' frustrations as they watch from home

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- As he was set to head into the offseason earlier than ever before in his career, Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. paused for moment to think of a word to describe it.

"Weird," he said. "Just weird. Unexpected, too. Mad. And mad. Those are the words. I don’t want to feel it again. And I look at who’s in the playoffs and I know we could have done some things if we could have just done what we needed to do to get in. That’s the worst part, because I know this team knows what it takes to win in the playoffs, but we didn’t handle the business to get there."

Harris arrived to the Broncos as an undrafted rookie in 2011. But his competitiveness was evident early -- none other than Champ Bailey predicted on the first day of training camp a long, prosperous career for Harris -- and he has, in many ways represented the Broncos' transition from the 4-12 season in 2010 to AFC power in the five seasons that followed.

The Broncos won five consecutive AFC West titles starting in 2011, had four seasons in those five years with at least 12 wins, signed Peyton Manning and went to two Super Bowls, winning Super Bowl 50 last February. But that all ended with a 2-4 stumble down the stretch for a 9-7 finish this time around.

And as the Broncos watched the opening round of the playoffs unfold this past weekend in the AFC, their frustration likely only increased. Because one of the biggest things that was evident in the four games was that playoff grit mattered.

The teams with playoff chops, like Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Seattle, rolled to 18-, 25- and 20-point wins, respectively. Experience mattered as the teams that had ended playoff droughts to make the postseason field, like Miami and Detroit, weren’t quite ready to make the most of the moment.

That, too, will burn the Broncos as they watch the remainder of the playoffs unfold. When their fate became official with a dismal Christmas night loss in Kansas City, when even their defense failed them during Kansas City's 21-point first quarter, it was already on the Broncos' collective mind.

"It’s what you think about," said linebacker Von Miller. "I know the guys in this locker room, the leadership we have, you’re always going to think we could have made a run."

The Broncos were 7-3 when their bye week arrived, and though their playoff chances were formally stomped into the mud of Arrowhead Stadium on Christmas night, there were two games in the weeks before that holiday cave-in that really finished the Broncos off and cost them a chance to show their playoff resume.

There was the eight-point lead, with three minutes to play, that got away in what became an overtime loss to the Chiefs on Nov. 27. That loss started the tumble. And there was a dropped touchdown pass by Bennie Fowler in the closing minutes that would have given the Broncos a win Dec. 11 in Tennessee (a 13-10 loss).

"I was so proud of where we were at one point in the season, because I saw us getting better," is how former coach Gary Kubiak put it as the season drew to a close. "I saw us gaining confidence. I really thought coming out of that (Nov. 27) Kansas City game we had a chance to really blossom ... We didn’t get it done that game."

The Broncos consistently struggled on the offensive line this season, they had one of the least productive run games in the league and their defense didn’t play nearly as well in the big moments as it did in 2015. With all of that, their playoff chances could have been debated had they made it in anyway.

But it won’t lessen their belief they could have made a little noise, and the opening round of the playoffs showed they might have been right.

"No question," Harris said. "This team knows how to win. I’m always going to look at it and think if we could have just gotten in we could have won some games. That’s the worst part of not getting it done, and we didn’t deserve to make the playoffs because we didn’t get it done. But just knowing we should have and what we could have done, man, I hate that."