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The Denver Broncos lived with a crushing defeat for exactly one year. By beating San Diego last weekend, the Broncos moved beyond last January's overtime loss to Baltimore as a No. 1 playoff seed and gave themselves a shot at the team's first Super Bowl berth of the post-John Elway era.

In advance of Sunday's AFC championship game vs. New England, a look at the Broncos:

Team's theme

Once they acquired an elite quarterback and it became evident that he resembled the Peyton Manning of old, the Broncos have believed they could return to the Super Bowl. They're almost there.

How they got here

The Broncos went 13-3 to earn the AFC's No. 1 seed and beat San Diego 24-17 in a divisional playoff game, holding on after building a 17-0 lead through three quarters.

Super Bowl-bound if

Manning outplays Tom Brady. As Manning points out, quarterbacks never truly oppose one another, but that's not stopping anyone from saying the QBs will decide this game. Denver's running game is complementary, but that's all.

Homeward-bound if

Denver has trouble protecting a lead. The Broncos blew a 24-0 advantage in an overtime loss at New England in November and should have dominated San Diego, only to have its defense wobble in the fourth quarter.

Biggest variable

The Broncos' secondary. The defense was outstanding overall against the Chargers until cornerback Chris Harris was lost to a knee injury. His replacement, Quentin Jammer, looked completely lost on some big pass plays, and you had better believe Brady will be trying to exploit him.

Best player

Manning. At 37, he's remarkable to watch. Opponents have sacked him only 20 times in 17 games, and he rarely scrambles. Yet he's a master at moving around in the pocket and delivering the ball quickly and effectively.

Best player you've never heard of

Louis Vasquez, offensive guard. He's an All-Pro selection as the top performer on a rebuilt line. Manning helps make those guys look good, but they do protect him well.

Local connections

Offensive guard Zane Beadles is from Hillcrest High School and the University of Utah. Beadles has started 62 of 64 regular-season games at guard or tackle since being drafted in the second round in 2010. Denver coach John Fox spent the 1982 season as Utah's secondary coach during a nomadic career.

Reasons to cheer for them

Denver is the closest NFL team to Salt Lake City, and hundreds of Utahns are season-ticket holders. Manning is the best-known NFL player of his era and one of the top quarterbacks in history, yet he has only one Super Bowl victory. He's a humble superstar and handled himself wonderfully in defeat last year, waiting a long time to congratulate Baltimore's Ray Lewis. And the Patriots have played in five Super Bowls since Denver's last trip.

Reasons to cheer against them

Because of geography, the Broncos are force-fed to a Salt Lake City television market that tires of them, in some cases. The dosage will only increase if Denver wins another championship. —

Sunday's conference title games

O AFC championship

• New England at Denver, 1 p.m., Ch. 2

NFC championship

• San Francisco at Seattle, 4:30 p.m., Ch. 13 —

Editor's note

This is the last in a series previewing Sunday's NFL championship game contestants. Saturday • Denver Broncos

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