The Denver Broncos were riding a stomach-churning roller coaster, NFL-style.
First, there was the emotional high of a 27-13 playoff victory over the defending champion Patriots last January, a game highlighted by five forced turnovers, including a 100-yard interception return by cornerback Champ Bailey.
Then came the devastating dip, a 34-17 playoff loss to the Steelers despite having home-field advantage in the AFC Championship game.
When the topsy-turvy ride stopped, it was time for introspection among the Broncos' decision-makers. Did they feel the 13-3 team that throttled the Patriots was good enough to make a run at the Super Bowl in 2006? Or was a shakeup necessary in light of the loss to the Steelers?
``In the end, we felt good enough with how the season went -- to beat the defending champs at home and ultimately slip into home-field advantage -- that we felt retaining the core of the team was important," said Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist.
Because of that, the 1-1 Broncos team that visits the 2-0 Patriots Sunday night will look quite similar to the one that ended New England's 2005 season.
As part of their offseason plan to retain much of their core, the Broncos re-signed defensive lineman Gerard Warren, and reached contract extensions with offensive tackle Matt Lepsis, center Tom Nalen (of Foxborough), and defensive lineman Courtney Brown.
So of the 22 Broncos players who started in that playoff game, 19 are still on the club, with only running back Mike Anderson (Ravens), receiver Ashley Lelie (Falcons), and defensive lineman Trevor Pryce (Ravens) departing. Tight end Jeb Putzier (Texans), who didn't start, was another key contributor now playing elsewhere.
Receiver Javon Walker, acquired in a trade with the Packers for a second-round draft choice, is the Broncos' most significant newcomer. He's replaced Lelie, who held out of training camp and ultimately was traded to the Falcons.
``At the time, Ashley had made up his mind that he wasn't coming in and we felt he had been a big part of our offense," said Sundquist, who has been with the Broncos for 15 years and is in his fifth year as general manager. ``He could stretch a defense, and people had to respect that. But when he put forth what his demands would be, saying he wanted out of Denver, we were faced with a situation in which Rod [Smith] was getting older and we had some young receivers who were hard workers, but the question was, could you rely on them as your Nos. 2 and 3?
``To get a proven veteran who has done it on game day, and at a high level, that's normally difficult to do. It was an opportunity presented to us that we felt we had to take."
Walker, who didn't play much in the preseason while recovering from ACL surgery, has emerged as a top target with eight catches for 120 yards in two games. Denver's other top option is Smith (five catches, 50 yards ), who sustained a concussion in Sunday's win over the Chiefs and likely will be listed as probable on today's injury report. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has joked in the past that the 36-year-old Smith could make a highlight film of all his great plays against the Patriots, and probably earn Hall of Fame consideration.
Another change for the Broncos offensively is at running back, where Anderson averaged 15 carries per game in 2005 and speedy Tatum Bell had 11. This year, the Broncos have rung the bell twice, with Bell (31 carries, 172 yards ) splitting time with rookie free agent Mike Bell (26 carries, 102 yards ).
The Bell-Bell combination, however, wasn't part of the initial plan. The team was prepared to select their running back of the future in April's draft, but that changed when quarterbacks Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler started slipping down the board.
``To be quite honest, had we not selected a quarterback, we would have drafted Laurence Maroney at the 15th spot," said Sundquist, who traded to the No. 11 position to select Vanderbilt's Cutler. ``Laurence ran our system at Minnesota and he's a big, strong guy, with tremendous big-play capability. I'm not afraid to say it: He was in the Broncos' crosshairs, but then the quarterback opportunity came and we jumped on that."
Similar to the way that Belichick called Corey Dillon on the day the Patriots drafted Maroney, the Broncos and Sundquist spoke with quarterback Jake Plummer after selecting Cutler.
``I told Jake all along, reiterating that he has nothing to apologize for, winning 30-plus games and taking us to the playoffs three times over three years, and finally getting over the hump and winning that playoff game at home to advance to the AFC Championship last year," Sundquist said. ``Internally, I think it's worked out fine because Jake understands the situation, that he can't play forever, and that this particular offensive system needs a certain guy at the controls. Jake is going into his 10th year, he's a smart guy, and he understood from an organization standpoint what we were doing.
``He had one of his better camps, and on the flip side, Jay Cutler is extremely mature for his age. He knew the situation coming in and has handled it well. Between the two players, with regards to the scenario, they've done great. But the outside pressure is tremendous. Just like Patriots fans, Broncos fans are rabid, and it's brought up constantly."
This week was no exception, after the Broncos followed a season-opening 18-10 road loss to the Rams with a 9-6 overtime win over the visiting Chiefs. Plummer has struggled, completing 29 of 56 throws for 311 yards, with no touchdowns and four interceptions .
Also on offense, the Broncos have a new coordinator in Mike Heimerdinger, who replaces Gary Kubiak, now the Texans' head coach. And with tight end Putzier following Kubiak to Houston, the Broncos drafted Western Michigan's Tony Scheffler in the second round as a replacement.
Defensively, the Broncos have been without Brown, their disruptive defensive end who underwent knee surgery Aug. 9. He's unlikely to play Sunday. Kenard Lang, who was the team's most notable free agent signing, has stepped in for Brown, while on the other side of the line, Ebenezer Ekuban has an expanded role in taking over for Pryce. The Broncos have been vulnerable against the run, allowing 270 yards (4.4 per carry) through two games, but have perhaps the best corner in the game in Bailey, the eight-year veteran and six-time Pro Bowler.
When assessing the Broncos' first two games, Sundquist said it mirrors the team's start of 2005 when Denver was pounded in its opener at Miami, 34-10, then came back from a 14-3 halftime deficit to beat the Chargers, 20-17, the next week. The team ended up with a 13-3 record and officially ended the Patriots' quest for a third straight Super Bowl championship in the playoffs.
``I haven't really looked at them since the playoff game until this week, but certainly their offense is a little bit different," Sundquist said of the Patriots. ``As you look at their starting roster, you do see a lot of changes on the offensive line, two new wide receivers, a new guy in the running game with Maroney. One consistent factor is No. 12, Tom Brady, still there at the helm. He's a proven commodity.
``Defensively, with [Junior] Seau and Rodney [Harrison], you get leadership, and that's what you lose when Tedy [Bruschi] went down. They've played together, have playoff experience, and have a degree of swagger.
``Overall, I think when New England looks at us, they'll say they remember those guys. But when we look back, there are a few unfamiliar faces."