For Broncos, it's all in their heads

Surely it won't happen again, will it?

That is the fear in Denver. That is the overriding concern. The players know it. The coaches know. John Elway knows it. The Broncos' fans most definitely know it.

A big part of playing football is the mental aspect of the game. Players are valued not only for their physical prowess but also their mental toughness. How do they react to adversity? How do they handle success? How do they rebound from defeat? It is all a part of the game.

Denver will be playing the San Diego Chargers on Sunday in a divisional-round matchup, but the Broncos also will be trying to slay the albatross that has hung over the franchise since they lost at home to Baltimore 38-35 in double overtime a year ago.

This Broncos team, like that one, finished the regular season 13-3. This Broncos team, like that one, won the AFC West. This Broncos team, like that one, earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This Broncos team, like that one, watched wild-card weekend from home.

And yet that Broncos team lost to a Ravens team that had limped into the playoffs, beat Indianapolis in a wild-card game the week before and was a 9½-point underdog against Denver. If that Broncos team had made one more defensive stop, just one more play, it would have won the game. It would have advanced. Then, who knows what would have happened?

The narrative changed when Jacoby Jones sprinted down the right sideline behind Broncos defensive back Tony Carter, who eased up, and caught the bomb thrown by Joe Flacco. It changed when Denver safety Rahim Moore leaped into the air and then tried to knock the ball out of Jones' hands, to no avail. It changed when Jones danced into the end zone, tying the game with less than a minute to play.

It is all still there, still fresh, no matter how sick the Broncos are of talking about it.

That's why this first playoff game is so dangerous. You can talk forever about the matchups, about Denver's so-called "five-10" club -- the five players who scored 10 or more touchdowns apiece this season -- about the record setting offense and about Peyton Manning's 55 touchdown passes. But this game could boil down to mental toughness, to who breaks mentally and who doesn't.

Denver will want to push the tempo early. It will want to get San Diego's defense on its heels and make the Chargers play from behind. It will want to turn San Diego into more of a one-dimensional offense, where Philip Rivers must throw and throw and throw to get the Chargers back in the game. That would aid a Denver defense that is playing without its top two pass-rushers from last season, Elvis Dumervil (now with the Ravens) and Von Miller (out for the season with an injury), and finished this season 19th in total yards allowed and 22nd in points allowed.

San Diego will want to replicate what it did in both regular-season meetings with the Broncos this season: control the clock. A lot of teams talk about how the best defense against Manning and all his weapons -- Demaryius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Julius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker make up the "five-10" club -- is a ball-controlling offense. Not a lot of teams can do it.

The Chargers did. Twice. And it wasn't even close.

In Week 10, San Diego lost to Denver 28-20 but kept the game close by dominating time of possession 38:03 to 21:57. On a Thursday night in Week 15, it was a similar story. The Chargers controlled the clock for 38 minutes, 49 seconds, and won 27-20. It was the fewest points the Broncos scored all season. Denver's offense can't score and dominate when it's standing on the sideline.

San Diego coach Mike McCoy and defensive coordinator John Pagano know this. McCoy worked with Manning his first season in Denver. He knows what Manning likes to do, and what he doesn't.

And McCoy also knows that if the Chargers can just hang in there and make a game of it into the second half, doubt could creep into the Broncos' minds. If the game is close in the third quarter and into the fourth, Denver could get tight. It is human nature. The mental part of the game is just as big as the physical.

For all of Manning's greatness, the prevailing theory among defensive coaches is that he often stumbles in the playoffs because he overthinks everything. He dissects everything. He doesn't just go out and let it rip.

Maybe that's right. Maybe it's not. But it speaks to the mental part of the game. And Manning knows the knock on him. He knows his postseason record does not reflect his regular-season greatness.

He wants to change that. He burns for another Super Bowl title.

The Broncos should roll over the Chargers. They should be able to do what Denver did in 1997 a year after it finished the regular season 13-3 but, coming off a bye, lost a playoff game to Jacksonville. They should be able to march to the Super Bowl and win it. They have the talent.

But this game is about more than having talented players. They have to be mentally strong, too. On Sunday, we will find out how mentally tough the Broncos really are.