- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 4, 2016

DENVER — Fans of the Denver Broncos are reeling from a bad case of Mile High anxiety.

With this year’s game, the Broncos now share the NFL record for most Super Bowl appearances with eight. But the team has also lost more championship games than any other team with five, none of them close, most recently the nightmare 43-8 blowout against the Seattle Seahawks two years ago.

Hence the bitten-down fingernails, deep breaths and churning stomachs as the Denver fandom prepares with one eye covered for Super Bowl 50 on Sunday in Santa Clara, California.

“We cannot live with another [Super Bowl] blowout. That would be terrible,” said Shadd Ring, manager of the website Bronco Planet and the founder of the Denver Broncos Booster Club.

While the orange and blue captured this season’s top seed in the AFC with a 12-4 record, the team did so in hair-raising fashion, coming back from 14-point deficits in three games and winning 11 games by seven points or fewer.

Then there were panic-inducing AFC playoffs, in which the Broncos careened to victory on a late fumble by Pittsburgh three weeks ago and then a fluky missed extra point early that came back to haunt New England.

In other words, the Broncos faithful can be forgiven for reaching for their defibrillators as Sunday’s game pitting their cardiac kids against the favored Carolina Panthers approaches.

“I admit, I’m nervous,” said Michael Sandoval, a lifelong fan who attended the AFC Championship Game won by the Broncos 20-18 after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was intercepted in the end zone on a two-point conversion that would have tied the game with seconds remaining.

“You see these cartoons about how we’re chewing on our fingernails. You see people commenting on Facebook about how, ‘They’re going to give me a heart attack,’ and ‘You guys are killing me,’” said Mr. Sandoval, an analyst at the Independence Institute in Denver. “And then you have those last-minute wins with the turnovers.”

Cartoonist Drew Litton, who draws for 9News in Denver and other outlets, summed it up with a Jan. 29 cartoon for Mile High Sports magazine showing panicky fans gritting their teeth with their hair on end as they watched the AFC Championship Game.

“Nervous, anxious, and scared. ONE MORE GAME,” Broncos fan Wes Krenning said afterward in a comment on Facebook.

Not helping matters is that the Broncos are led by the oldest quarterback ever to start a Super Bowl: Peyton Manning, 39, a future Hall of Famer who survived the shakiest season of his career in 2015 and missed six games with an injury.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are helmed by 26-year-old Cam Newton, the first quarterback to throw for 30 touchdowns and rush for another 10 and the all-but-certain league MVP.

The Denver Broncos history also can be credited for contributing to Colorado’s anxiety. The Denver Broncos won the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl championships under quarterback John Elway, but those wins came after four demoralizing Super Bowl beatdowns.

The Broncos lost their first three Super Bowl games by scores of 27-10, 39-20 and 42-10, followed by the coup de grace, a 55-10 blowout for the ages at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV.

And then there was Super Bowl XLVIII, in which the Peyton Manning-led team with the NFL’s top-ranked offense laid a 43-8 egg against Seattle, a defeat that still has Broncos boosters in therapy.

Broncos fans have had more of their fair share of embarrassments in big games,” said Mr. Ring. “From their first Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys to the blowouts that we had in the early Elway years — you hate to think about getting embarrassed again.”

This year, Mr. Ring said, he is feeling “a subtle calm,” and not because he is on medication or has already moved through the five stages of grief.

“I like the spot we’re in. I think we’re being underestimated right now,” he said. “I think our defense is underappreciated, and I thought more people would be paying attention to that after how frantic we made Tom Brady look two weeks ago.”

Indeed, the Broncos‘ best chance is their No. 1-ranked defense, which has shown its ability to keep the team in games until the end. The problem is that the more pedestrian offense has had trouble scoring, hence the 14 out of 18 games during the 2015 season and playoffs decided by a single possession.

“One of the old sayings is defense wins championships, and this is a team with a great defense,” said Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams. “We have a phenomenal defense, and a phenomenal defense can keep the game close.”

His office has a bet with that of North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall. Their staffs will donate food to the Food Bank of the Rockies and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern Carolina in the name of the game’s winner.

Meanwhile, state insurance commissioners Wayne Goodwin of North Carolina and Marguerite Salazar of Colorado have their own bet: If the Panthers win, she owes him Colorado elk tenderloin, whiskey and toffee. If the Broncos win, he owes her North Carolina barbecue, craft beer and Cheerwine soda.

Broncos fans say they will be overjoyed with a win and satisfied with a hard-fought game, even if it’s a loss. What they dread is the prospect of another lopsided loss that sends them reaching for the Zoloft.

“A close loss, where you’re battling and you’re in it, like Elway has challenged this team to do, to be fighters until the end — I think people can live with that,” Mr. Ring said. “But if we start out and they score two, three times and Peyton turns it over, it’s not going to be fun for Broncos fans.”

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