DENVER — The Denver Broncos are 13-3 and own the AFC’s top seed, just like last year.
Only this time, they’ve lost to each of the three remaining teams in the bracket.
The Colts won 39-33 on Oct. 20 in Peyton Manning’s unhappy homecoming in Indianapolis.
The Patriots won 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 24 in Wes Welker’s disappointing return to New England
And, San Diego handed the Broncos their only loss in Denver 27-20 on Dec. 12.
The Chargers earned a return trip to the Mile High City by upsetting Cincinnati 27-10 Sunday in the wild-card round. The original AFL teams have never met in the playoffs.
Some Broncos admitted last year they were overly confident after roaring into the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak only to lose 38-35 in double-overtime to Baltimore, a team it had beaten handily on the road in December.
That shouldn’t be a problem this time.
The Chargers held the Broncos, the highest-scoring team of the Super Bowl era at 37.9 points a game, to their lowest output of the season last month.
“It’s fresh in our minds that if we don’t do our best, we can get beat at home,” wide receiver Bubba Caldwell said. “Baltimore a year ago, San Diego a month ago.”
Denver was without Welker (concussion) against the Chargers that night, which cost them on third down (3 for 8) and in time of possession (22 minutes for Manning, 38 for Philip Rivers).
Ryan Mathews helped the Chargers gain more than 100 yards on the ground on first down, a problem the Broncos addressed with the signing of defensive end Jeremy Mincey a few days later after his release by the Jaguars.
Mincey has helped seal off the edge and curtail opponents’ running games.
And Welker is set to return for the playoffs after missing the final 3½ games.
But the Broncos also enter the playoffs without star linebacker Von Miller (knee) and a slew of other injured players on defense, one reason they so desperately wanted the home-field advantage and first-round bye again.
San Diego’s win in Denver was one of four straight that helped the Chargers (10-7) sneak into the playoffs.
“SD it is! Excited! I’m done with sitting around. Now we have work to do!” guard Zane Beadles tweeted Sunday night.
The Broncos and Chargers will be playing at Sports Authority Field exactly one year after Denver’s devastating defeat to the Ravens when Rahim Moore’s mistimed jump allowed Jacoby Jones’ 70-yard TD catch from Joe Flacco in the final minute that tied it at 35.
“The main thing we really learned was as a team, we have to play 60 minutes,” Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “Nobody is going to give up, because it’s do-or-die.”
Broncos coach John Fox and his former offensive coordinator Mike McCoy took a lot of heat after that playoff pratfall for their conservative approach late in the game, especially when Manning was ordered to take a knee with 31 seconds and three timeouts remaining in regulation.
McCoy was hired as San Diego’s head coach a few days later. Under his tutelage, Rivers, who is 6-2 in Denver, enjoyed a resurgent season and the Chargers ended a three-year playoff drought. On Sunday, they won their first playoff game since 2008 — against Manning’s Colts.
“I’m not worried about last year, to tell you the truth,” Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno said on Friday. “I’m ready for this year, ready for this new season. Last year is last year. Let’s get it going this year.”