ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — The Denver Broncos don’t get tight when their games get that way.
Their 23-16 win over Pittsburgh on Sunday was their 10th by seven points or fewer, tying the 1978 Houston Oilers for most such triumphs in a single season in NFL history.
With 14 of their games going down to the wire, “we’re battled-tested,” defensive end Derek Wolfe said.
“We’ve been in these situations so many times that you don’t even panic anymore,” receiver Emmanuel Sanders said. “You just know that we’re going to come through.”
Against Pittsburgh, cornerback Bradley Roby forced a fumble for the game’s only turnover, DeMarcus Ware recovered and Peyton Manning drove Denver downfield for its only TD with three minutes remaining.
“That is how it’s been all year,” said C.J. Anderson, who punched it in from the 1. “We’ve had ups and downs. We’ve struggled, but we keep on battling. Throughout the season we’ve learned that it’s going to take four quarters to beat teams. We’re relentless in there. We fight, we grind, we just keep pushing.”
“That kind of has become a theme for us,” coach Gary Kubiak said Monday, “to grind and work and just keep ourselves in position to be successful.”
Roby said playing in so many close games has kept the Broncos cool-headed when the heat is on.
“If you haven’t been in a situation like this all season, then when it happens, you start thinking of the wrong things,” Roby said. “We’ve been here all the time, so it was just that we were going to do our job and make something happen.’”
Denver is 10-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer. A 12-point win at Detroit in September was a five-point game until Owen Daniels’ TD with 2:28 left.
“I think it helps playing a lot of close games during the course of the season, starting with the very first one against Baltimore,” Manning said. “That was a dog fight, grinder and went down to the last drive. If you can be in a lot of those games and win those games, it certainly gives you confidence and, hey, it’s playoff football.”
The New England Patriots, who visit Denver for the AFC championship, are 6-3 in games decided by seven points or fewer, including a 30-24 overtime loss to the Broncos on Nov. 29.
On Sunday, Denver’s NFL-best defense kept things close until Manning could deliver his 55th comeback in crunch time.
“Our defense has been outstanding all season. They have led us to this point, let’s make that clear,” Manning said. “Each game, key defensive players stepped it up, but you have to be a good team to win these playoff games and you have to win as a team.”
Daniels called this latest nail-biter “a microcosm of our season.”
“It wasn’t pretty. We struggled offensively, but when it really counted, we found a way to put a great drive together and run the ball,” Daniels said. “It’s another one of those games we found a way to do it.”
The Broncos (13-4) figure they’ll have to play better against the Patriots (13-4). No more blown coverages. Or dropped passes. But they also have a strut borne from pulling out so many close games, a quiet confidence that things will work out and the opponent will crater.
“Our confidence is perfect,” cornerback Aqib Talib said. “We’re good. We’re playing a team who we beat earlier this year, we’re at home, we’re healthy. So, let’s get it.”
In the 2012 season, the Broncos rolled into the playoffs on an 11-game winning streak in which their average margin of victory was 16.45 points. They promptly lost in double overtime to Baltimore 38-35 in what was their first close game in three months.
The Broncos’ average margin of victory this season is 7.15 points. They haven’t had a breather since beating San Diego 17-3 on Dec. 6.
“We had all these tight games,” Von Miller said, “I guess it’s time for us to blow out somebody, right?”
Notes: S/PR Omar Bolden (knee) is out for the playoffs. … The Broncos are still scratching their heads over several calls Sunday such as the quick whistle on a sack that negated Miller’s scoop-6 and the touchback on the Steelers’ fumbled punt. Kubiak’s biggest concern was the non-call on an onside kick in the closing seconds: “The ball was touched at 7½ yards and there was no flag, so thank God we survived that one.”