One team went without the services of its Hall of Fame-bound quarterback for more than a third of the season, and when he was available, he was a shell of his former self.
The other had its quarterback all season but faced week after week of injuries to his pass catchers, offensive linemen and running backs.
Often, teams with those story lines are studying the draft board this time of year. But these are the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots — two franchises built to overcome problems big and small. And once again, they find themselves on the verge of the Super Bowl.
Sunday’s AFC title game is being billed as "Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, Part 17," and many believe it could be the last game between the two best quarterbacks of their generation.
It’s also a matchup of two franchises that make a habit of playing in January because of the way they’re built and run. New England is seeking its ninth AFC title; nobody has won more. Denver is going for No. 8, which would put the Broncos in a tie with the Patriots and Steelers.
The secret to New England’s success?
"Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. It’s Tom Brady and Bill Belichick," said Aqib Talib of the Broncos, who played cornerback for the Patriots two years ago when these teams last met for the AFC title.
Talib left as a free agent and signed with Denver after that season. Nobody was surprised. Cornerbacks, even outstanding ones, are as disposable as dish towels in New England. Last year, the Patriots won with four-time All-Pro Darrelle Revis, but he plays for the Jets now. It’s like that at pretty much every position — except one.
"They’re moving guys around. They still have the same kind of guy," said Broncos offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. "Whether they develop them, go find them, or whatever. It seems like `50′ (defensive end Rob Ninkovich) has been around there for 15 years. Or a guy just like him."
For the record, Ninkovich has been there since 2009, which makes him a long-timer by Patriots standards. They do not stick with players for loyalty’s sake, or because of what they did in the past. Among those who have left for other teams after helping the Patriots to the Super Bowl: Randy Moss, Ty Law, Wes Welker, Asante Samuel, Adam Vinatieri. It’s a longer list than that.
This season, the Patriots have started the same five offensive linemen in consecutive games a grand total of once. Elsewhere on the offense, top receiver Julian Edelman missed seven games. Danny Amendola and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski both missed time. Running back has been a carousel, most recently occupied by veteran Steven Jackson, who didn’t sign with New England until Dec. 22.
But so long as No. 12 is lining up under center, the Patriots rarely skip a beat.
"No quarterback has been able to throw the ball over 50 times a game and win, and he’s done that consistently," said Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who has held six jobs for six different teams since 2000, the year Belichick was hired in New England.
Over the past three years, Brady is 9-3 when he throws 50 or more times.
"That shows you how great a passer he is, how many mistakes that he doesn’t make, where everybody else that’s had to throw the ball that much gets beat," Phillips said.
The Broncos, meanwhile, were long regarded as one of the top franchises in the NFL until a lull that briefly turned them into a laughingstock in the late 2000s. The two main figures through that drama were Tim Tebow and Josh McDaniels, who now works as Belichick’s offensive coordinator.
John Elway returned, this time in the front office, and quickly restored order.
The Broncos built a state-of-the-art practice facility for more than $35 million and spent lavishly on free agents to get back into the mix for the Super Bowl, which was a common destination when Elway was playing.
The most important transaction, of course, was the signing of Manning. But it wasn’t until his undoing this year — a foot injury cost him six-plus games, and before that he led the league with 17 interceptions — that it became clear the strength of the foundation had been re-established.
Denver’s victories with Manning either absent or compromised have come courtesy of a newly designed running game and a top-ranked defense filled with playmakers. Von Miller reached 50 career sacks faster than anyone but Reggie White and Derrick Thomas. Chris Harris Jr., has gone from rookie free agent to second-team All-Pro. DeMarcus Ware led the team with 7 1-2 sacks this year and is a game away from the Super Bowl for the first time in his 11 seasons.
Elway hired coach Gary Kubiak with the idea that his ex-teammate would help him transition from the Manning era to whatever comes next. That a "transition" year has the Broncos a game from the Super Bowl speaks to the roster he built.
"There always is a transition period, because unfortunately, these great quarterbacks get older," Elway said. "I think we’ve tried to work toward that. We’ve tried, with Gary coming in this year, to be a little more focused on the running game and get a little more balanced to help Peyton out."
So, instead of some story about a relative newbie making the Super Bowl, as we’ll hear when either Carolina or Arizona makes it in the NFC, this will be a story of franchises that have found a way to stay in the hunt for years, even decades.
It’s the Broncos, trying to coax Manning to a Super Bowl in what could be his last hurrah.
And it’s the Patriots, who expect to be on the doorstep as long as Brady is taking snaps.
"It’s so hard to be consistent in this league," Patriots receiver Matthew Slater said. "I think that’s something that every franchise hopes to establish, is some consistency and stability, and we’ve been really fortunate to have that here."
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