What Makes Denver the NFL's (Very Entertaining) Comeback Kings?

Even without Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos still have a knack for staging incredible second-half comebacks. Is it the altitude?

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Last football season the Denver Broncos enjoyed a brief vogue as the team Americans loved to root for whenever such support did not conflict with more established loyalties. Part of the Broncos' mass appeal stemmed from the play of Tim Tebow, the former college phenom whose atypical style of quarterbacking and unique personality made him something of a cult hero. But another reason why jumping on the Broncos bandwagon appealed to so many disparate groups of fans with no tangible connection to Denver was the team's habit of staging dramatic and improbable comebacks in games they otherwise had no business winning. Five times during the second half of the 2011-12 season, Denver trailed at some point during the fourth quarter and still managed to eke out a victory. Two of those comebacks involved game-tying field goals that were kicked with less than two minutes left on the clock. The most dramatic occurred when Tebow improvised a game-winning touchdown run with only 58 seconds left against the New York Jets as a bewildered Rex Ryan looked onward.

Even in the seasons before Tebow mania and Manning, the Broncos were comeback artists.

Since there is no statistical metric for measuring a team's ability to make clutch plays when trailing late in a game, analysts and fans were left without an explanation for Denver's fourth-quarter heroics. Given Tebow's devout Christian beliefs and proclivity to advertise them, it became popular to joke that divine intervention truly favored Tebow and the team he led. In reality, it was a combination of the Denver offense's uncanny ability to come alive in the final minutes, Matt Prater's steady leg, a stingy defense, and sheer good luck that contributed equally to Denver's wins. It was an incredibly exciting brand of football, but popular opinion deemed it unsustainable. The magic had to run out sometime, and the end came with a bang when the New England Patriots pointedly ended Denver's season with a 45-10 beat-down in the second round of the playoffs.

In spite of the team's unexpected success—all those comebacks helped the 2011 Broncos earn the franchise's first playoff berth since 2005—Denver's management, led by hall-of-fame quarterback John Elway, decided to shake things up in the offseason. They signed free agent quarterback Peyton Manning (an oldie but a goodie), shipped Tebow to New York, and looked to start fresh by building an offense that they hoped would be capable of scoring points before the final period. But while the new Broncos have some distinct differences from the team that Tebow led just a year ago—they no longer run the read option on offense—one thing that hasn't changed is the team's habit to win by coming from behind.

The 2012 Broncos are 3-3, and two of those victories resulted from fourth-quarter comebacks. In week one against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Manning threw a final-quarter touchdown to Jacob Tamme that gave the Broncos the lead for good, and then engineered another scoring drive that ended in a field goal. In week six, the Broncos trailed the San Diego Chargers 0-24 at halftime and 14-24 at the start of the fourth quarter, but Manning once again rallied the troops and threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to give Denver the win. That game was so dramatic some have called it Peyton Manning's greatest comeback ever, which is not small praise since, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Manning has led 37 fourth-quarter comebacks, the most of any NFL quarterback since 1960. Even when the Broncos lose, they rally late. In each of the team's three losses this season, the Broncos have outscored opponents in the fourth quarter by a margin of 35-0. This is a team that seems preordained to play well down the stretch, and opponents have not figured out a way to stop the Broncos offense from coming alive late in games.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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