I’m not going to remember exactly where I was when the Broncos were officially eliminated from postseason consideration on Sunday afternoon. Truth be told, I’m not even sure I recall it right now. I was in the midst of errands, dashing around the southern half of the Denver metropolitan area and finding out how the rest of the world spends its autumn and early-winter Sundays. I reckon, therefore, that I was somewhere along Yosemite Street near the sprawling Park Meadows shopping complex, or perhaps on Lincoln Ave. to the south.
But I had been listening to or watching the Chargers’ 51-14 rout of the Detroit Lions as I skedaddled from one stop to the next, so I’d long since reconciled myself to the fact that no Lions rally was going to happen. The game started before the last of the early duels had been completed and seemed to pass out of doubt’s purview somewhere about the time the Miami Dolphins posted their first game-winning score of the year.
Thus entails the overuse of the word “meaningless” in the next seven days, in television, in newspaper copy, in blogs, in message boards, in evening-time chatter over an egg-nog latte at Starbucks.
This notion has always rankled me.
Perhaps it goes back to when I was 12 years old in Tampa, striding through the parking lots that surrounded Tampa Stadium while walking from my father’s car to a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Buffalo Bills. Every story leading up to the game bellowed the two-word refrain: “meaningless game.” If it had no meaning, then why would we occupy a glorious Sunday afternoon with thousands of possibilities at our doorstep in order to traipse over to the still-not-yet-nicknamed “Big Sombrero” once more to watch a game rendered “meaningless” for the hometown side because it lugged a 3-10 record like a boulder attached by chain to its ankle?
Belittling the contest as “meaningless” was the habitually fashionable thing to do for many in the community, which expected its local bunch to simply assume the fetal position and sob when within sight of the Bills, who at the time were a mighty 11-2 and in the midst of their best season in 22 years.
Final score? Team playing the “meaningless” game 10, team with playoff seeding at stake 5.
I didn’t need the lesson, but it was a pleasant reminder that “meaningless” is a word for those who either don’t understand or choose to ignore the pride a professional athlete — or that of any vocation, for that matter — can have in his work.
“If you love football, you’re going to come out and play,” said Broncos running back Selvin Young. “This is your job. This is what we do. This is what I want to do until I’m not able to do it anymore. I’m pretty sure that feeling is mutual throughout this team.”
Some might believe it difficult for a team to be mentally ready to play in a scenario like the one befalling the Broncos. Denver tight end Tony Scheffler would respectfully disagree — particularly with a team foraging for redemption after a 31-13 loss that left many players mortified and excavating their brains for adequate answers.
“It’s not tough after you take a loss like that,” Scheffler said Thursday night. “Every guy in here is a competitor. Coach wouldn’t have these guys in here if we weren’t competitors, so we’ll finish strong. A lot of pride on the line, and we’re going to go out here and give it our all these last two games.”
Such results like the ’88 Bucs-Bills game — which remains one of the most satisfying sporting events I’ve ever witnessed — are an annual occurrence, even if the exact score is not; no one had ever played a 10-5 NFL game before or since.
It’s been a long time since the Broncos began a preparation week like this. While the 2002 season finale eventually had no bearing on the Broncos’ playoff hopes, the team wasn’t eliminated until results went against it just before the 2:15 p.m. MST kickoff. In two other years that followed, the Broncos had their postseason position locked and could move neither up nor down in the regular-season finale.
So a scenario such as this week’s is rare. It’s happened more often to almost everyone else in the league this decade than it has to the Broncos.
Defeating the Chargers in the first prime-time NFL game ever to be played on Christmas Eve — and you’ll read that phrase at least a few times this week — might not be the mountain the Broncos wished to scale in 2007, but you can’t ascend Mt. Everest every year. Sometimes you have to settle for Grandfather Mountain.
Sure, it might not be as majestic or prominent a peak, but it’s nevertheless a mountain. Climbing it is still an accomplishment — which is precisely what a win against San Diego would be.
“You can’t win every year. We know that,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said. “We expect to win, but we’ve just got to grow.”
A win at San Diego won’t extend the Broncos’ season beyond Dec. 30, but it would be a needed salve to patching up the wounds from defeats like the 38-point loss the Chargers inflicted upon the Broncos two and a half months ago.
Oh, and by the way, the last time the Broncos were in this situation — out of the race by the next-to-last game of the season — they played the team that had already sealed first place in the AFC West. The result? A victory over the division champions.
The year was 2001, and the vanquished champs were the Oakland Raiders. Next Monday, the Broncos hope they can repeat the feat in San Diego.