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Super Bowl or bust: Denver Broncos facing highest expectations

In a moment of insightful levity few others in the NFL could possibly provide, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning dug deep this week to explain the difference between simply appreciating his return to football in 2012 and souring on the final result.

"As the great Ebby Calvin 'Nuke' LaLoosh said in *Bull Durham*, 'I like winning. It's like, uh, you know, better than losing,' " Manning said Wednesday. "That's one of my great quotes I've used to motivate me."

Pretty much perfectly put, wouldn't you say?

Not only does Manning's reference properly explain the sense of disappointment in the wake of a double-overtime playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens, it also properly illustrates the simple -- but complicated -- task that awaits the Broncos in 2013.

This time around, it's boom or bust. Lombardi or lethargy. Win it all or nothing was won.

In the wake of Thursday's release of the 2013 schedule, that's the pressure undoubtedly facing the Broncos, more so than any other team in the NFL -- even if every other team will suggest it also expects the same result.

Manning's comeback in 2012 was beyond admirable. It was a comeback for the ages. In his first year back from the neck surgeries that sidelined him for the entire 2011 season, Manning led a new team and a new offense to a 13-3 finish -- a feat that belongs near the top of his long football accomplishments.

And yet, no sooner than he left the field after the loss to the Ravens, it was as if we all forgot about the whole neck "thing." Plenty resorted back to the mystery of Manning's postseason plague. You know, those pesky statistics that include a 9-11 record during the playoffs, including eight one-and-done appearances.

If you thought such criticism was unfair, you might want to prepare yourself for the next nine months. After all, Manning arguably faced less pressure last year -- at least pertaining to original postseason expectations, given his health and his new environment -- than in any other season in his illustrious career. Now, he's back to facing some of the most intense expectations in sports.

No, it won't be the type of heaviness he felt before finally winning a Super Bowl back in 2007. But just as that weight had mounted as a result of success without a ring for eight previous seasons, it once again is building back up to that point.

This isn't a surprise to anyone within the Broncos' organization. Hey, head coach John Fox feels Super Bowl pressure, too. So does wide receiver Wes Welker. And football czar John Elway certainly understands the expectations, given his own long wait for a Super Bowl as a player.

This is a team built with some of the best football minds in the game; some of the best personalities and players and evaluators of talents. It is a team that has all of the chemistry and the makeup to become one of the great championship squads we've ever seen. And that's part of the reason the expectations are going to be so high.

So, can the Broncos do it? Of course, they can. Just don't expect anyone to have any true sense of that possibility until after the regular season has concluded. The Broncos have the easiest strength of schedule in 2013, which means they'll immediately be categorized as one of those teams that doesn't matter until the playoffs.

But we shouldn't completely discount what we see from the Broncos during the first 17 weeks. They'll have plenty of time to master the big moments, with five prime-time games and a slew of major storylines following them around. Take your pick: The Broncos get a shot at revenge against the Ravens in Week 1. In Week 2, Manning plays his little brother, who has an extra Super Bowl ring. In Week 7, Manning returns to Indianapolis. In Week 12, Welker plays the Patriots. All of those games will build camaraderie and character. All of it will help fuel the Broncos toward their ultimate goal.

In the end, though, the questions Denver will face during this upcoming season will be so very different than those faced last year. No longer will anyone simply appreciate Manning's comeback to football for its supernatural worth. Now, that monkey has seemingly returned to his back.

Now, Manning must find a way to muster another Super Bowl ring. And don't think for a second that he doesn't know it.

"We did some good things last year, but we didn't finish the way we wanted," Manning said Wednesday. "We lost our last game of the season, so it's a motivating factor. Last year was good, but it wasn't great, and we're looking for that great season and to finish off with a championship season."

Yes, the Broncos' goal is clear: Win the Super Bowl.

After all, that's like, uh, you know, better than losing it.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington.

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