FOR ALL that there is to envy about Mike Shanahan and John Elway--including their two Super Bowl triumphs, their flair for offensive innovation and their killer tans--the two Denver football icons also share a bothersome distinction: Neither has won a Broncos playoff game without the other.
Just as that statistic was once used against Elway, who struggled after Shanahan twice left jobs as a Denver assistant, it's now cited by Shanahan's critics. Since Elway retired after winning the second of back-to-back NFL titles, in January 1999, Denver is 0-3 in the postseason. And don't think Shanahan, who has a league-best 114-62 regular-season mark since becoming the Broncos' head coach in '95, isn't sick of hearing it. "John used to get so annoyed when they'd say that about him," Shanahan says, "and now I understand how he feels."
Coming off a 13-3 season that earned them the AFC's No. 2 seed and a first-round bye, the Broncos are finally in position to end the carping. They've won their last 10 games at Invesco Field at Mile High, where next weekend they'll be hosting a playoff game for the first time in the post-Elway era, with a roster short on glitz but long on confidence. "When you go into a game knowing you're going to win, the other team tends to know it as well," says defensive end Trevor Pryce, who won Super Bowls in his first two seasons in Denver. "That's the way it was when I first got here, and it feels like we finally have that confidence back."
Unlike the last two years, when the Indianapolis Colts bounced the Broncos from the playoffs by a combined score of 90-34, Denver has a postseason-worthy defense. That unit allowed 16.1 points per game, the lowest figure of the Shanahan era and fourth best in the league. Rookie cornerbacks Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth bolstered a secondary that already featured two Pro Bowl players in cornerback Champ Bailey and free safety John Lynch. At the same time, the off-season importation of four former Cleveland Browns succeeded in upgrading the defensive line, which helped make the Broncos the NFL's No. 2 run defense. And there is improved chemistry all around. Citing a redesigned locker room that makes for a more open and collegial atmosphere, plus weekly Thursday night dinner outings attended by the entire defense, Lynch says of the Broncos, "We're a better football team than we were last year, and we're more of a team."
Together they have a chance to free their coach--and veterans such as Pryce, wideout Rod Smith and center Tom Nalen--from a stigma that has dogged the franchise since Elway limped into retirement. "It doesn't just drive [ Shanahan] crazy," Pryce says. "For all of us who were playing when John was here, it pretty much drives us up a wall."