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Elway builds a team that will go down kicking and screaming
AFC Championship Bron Heal 1
John Elway, Denver Broncos general manager and executive vice president of football operations, heads off the field after an organized training activity on June 1, 2015, in Englewood, Colo. - photo by Associated Press

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — John Elway's mind was still racing and he was trying to figure out what, exactly, was missing after another rough ending last season.

Hard to put his finger on it, but he knew this: "At least in the last game," he said, "you want to feel like you go out kicking and screaming."

So, out went John Fox. In came Gary Kubiak. And Elway, who had famously coined the term "There's no Plan B," in Denver when he signed Peyton Manning a few years before, had unwittingly created a mantra for the 2015 Broncos.

By most accounts, this year's Broncos do, in fact, go out kicking and screaming on most weeks — showing a fire that was strangely lacking under the teams coached by Fox, especially in the final games of each of his four seasons. In three playoff losses and another in the Super Bowl, those teams lost by an average score of 38-17.

How will this season end? And where? Still to be seen.

But Elway has reason to believe the end, whether it comes Sunday against New England in the AFC title game, or two weeks from Sunday in the Super Bowl, will include a bit more kicking and screaming. This team is 10-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less and has rallied from 14 points down three times to win.

"If we didn't have that this year, we wouldn't be where we are," Elway said. "Kind of the guts of this team is the fact that we've been in tough football games and we've figured out how to win them."

On the road to figuring that out, the Broncos have also made it clear that there is a Plan B — something Elway completely dismissed when asked, on the day he signed Manning, what he would do if the quarterback's shoulder and neck didn't turn out to be as healthy as advertised.

As last season progressed, and Manning wore down, Elway became more focused on building a team that wasn't completely reliant on its QB throwing for 400 yards and four touchdowns every week. A running game was born.

If nothing else, last season's spiritless 24-13 loss to the Colts in the playoffs, with Manning at less than 100 percent, served as confirmation the Broncos needed more than a Hall of Fame quarterback to win the Super Bowl. The story line felt very familiar to Elway, who won both his championships at the tail end of his career — while buttressed by a strong running game and defense.

So he hired Kubiak, whose arrival brought with it a new focus on ball control and balance. The subsequent hiring of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator made the Broncos more aggressive on that side of the ball. The defense was ranked first in yards allowed this season, scored five touchdowns and continually came up with timely, game-changing plays — see last week's, fourth-quarter, momentum-shifting fumble recovery in the win over Pittsburgh.

As the surest sign that things had changed, the Broncos went 5-2 when Brock Osweiler started in place of Manning over the second half of the season. Not a single one of those wins —or any of Denver's 13 victories this year — has been a runaway. Not a single one included a 35- or 40-point outburst that became common over 2012, 2013 and 2014.

"Every game is not going to be 'win by 30,'" linebacker Danny Trevathan said. "We've got to go out there and fight. Our team does a good job of fighting through it and making 'ways' out of 'no ways.'"

Yes, this year's team wins ugly. Those rallies from two touchdowns behind? They came against Kansas City, Cincinnati and New England. That's why the Broncos are playing the AFC title game at home.

"Believe me, we are battle-tested," running back C.J. Anderson said. "There are times, offensively, that we are like, 'What are we doing?' But we just fight and we grind."

Maybe Kubiak put it best when he was addressing the team in the locker room after last week's 23-16 victory over Pittsburgh.

The Broncos struggled for almost the entire 60 minutes — dropping passes, settling for field goals and allowing Manning to take a beating. They won a typical grinder of a game, set up when cornerback Bradley Roby, victimized on a couple of long pass plays, punched the ball out of a running back's hand to create the game's only turnover, which led to Denver's only touchdown.

"We kept battling and that's what we've been all year long," Kubiak told the players. "We've been a battling football team that there's no telling who's going to make the damn play."