By Mark Schiff
The Broncos AFC Championship game against the Oakland Raiders, the defending Super Bowl champs, on New Year’s Day 1978 marks a stark line of demarcation in the team’s history. Before: One playoff game (just days earlier against the Pittsburgh Steelers), the worst AFL team (a miserable 39–97–4 record when it was said and done), four winning seasons since 1960 and zero respect as a franchise. Since: 39 playoffs games, seven Super Bowls, two world championships, 10 AFC Championship Game appearances, 14 division titles and 20 playoff wins.
So it’s completely accurate to say that the Broncos as we know them got their start with their win over the Raiders in the 1977 AFC Championship game. As we fast-forward nearly 40 years and 382 wins later to another home conference championship game against a defending Super Bowl champ, here are your AFC Championship Week headlines.
Pair of defensive stars looking forward to finally playing the Patriots in AFC Championship
This week’s game is a rematch of the AFC Championship game of two years ago. And while Denver was able to get it done in a 26-16 win to advance to the Super Bowl, cornerstone defensive stars Von Miller and Chris Harris were both out of the game, and the Super Bowl, with ACL injuries. Not this year.
“The Patriots come here, we’re the No. 1 seed,” Miller said Wednesday. “Exactly how we had it before – but we get to play.”
Although he’ll be in the lineup, Harris is dealing with a shoulder injury heading into Sunday’s game, but the second-team All-Pro felt confident that his experience against the Patriots would pay divends.
“We are a veteran group, a veteran secondary. We have played against Brady tons of times. We have played against their offense a billion times,” Harris said.
Special teams could suffer with Omar Bolden placed on IR
Backup safety and special teams extraordinaire Omar Bolden was placed on IR Tuesday after injuring his knee in Denver’s divisional round win against Pittsburgh. The injury is especially costly because Bolden had just returned from a four-game absence after suffering a hamstring injury against the Chargers on Dec. 8. Flashing the vision and exceleration that got him a touchdown against the Colts, Bolden returned the game’s first punt for 42 yards before suffering his injury. With Bolden out, Denver’s special teams will have a hard time replicating its stellar performance from last week. Taurean Nixon, the Broncos seventh-round 2015 draft pick who was on the practice squad, will take Bolden’s place on the active roster.
Patriots will have Edelman, Hightower back for rematch against Broncos
Denver’s Week 12 win over New England came with the Patriots missing two of their key players: slot receiver Julian Edelman and, for more than half the game, star linebacker Dont’a Hightower. With both players back, Denver will have to adjust its strategy to limit New England’s short-passing game with Edelman and figure out ways to run the ball effectively against Hightower (Denver got 136 of their 179 running yards after Hightower exited the game in the second quarter).
Ed Hochuli to referee AFC Championship
The ref with the guns is coming to Denver.
Veteran NFL referee Ed Hochuli has been selected to work the AFC Championship Game. The refs selected for the championship round are among the highest rated in the league for their work in the regular season, though they will not work the Super Bowl.
An all-star crew of officials who were graded among the highest at their position will work alongside Hochuli, making this game unusual for the head ref. Hochuli, like all all refs, typically works alongside the same crew of officials throughout the regular season.
Although he was at the helm of their Week 16 meeting against the Bengals, Sunday’s game will mark just the seventh time Hochuli has officiated a Broncos game since 2001, according to ESPN Stats and Information. Longtime Broncos fans will remember Hochuli’s infamous “incomplete pass” call on a Jay Cutler fumble back in 2008, which helped the Broncos pull off a last-minute comeback against the Chargers in a crazy 39-38 win.
We hope it doesn’t come to that on Sunday. But we’d take it.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.