The Denver Post - - SPORTS - MARK KISZLA Mark Kiszla: mk­is­zla@den­ver­post.com or @markkis­zla

Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak too busy ac­cept­ing blame.

Gary Ku­biak would be a can­di­date for NFL coach of the year if he had more of an ego. But good, old Kubes has been too busy humbly tak­ing the blame for all the wor­ri­some things about the Bron­cos that aren’t re­ally his fault. Fair or not, we all know how the story goes in Den­ver: The coach’s con­ser­va­tive game plans, not skills di­min­ished by age, made quar­ter­back Pey­ton Man­ning look bad.

Ku­biak took the hit for the prob­lems of a patch­work of­fen­sive line when his boss re­fused to trade for Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas, be­cause Bron­cos Coun­try loves John El­way.

And should the Bron­cos some­how lose a play­off game to the bat­tered Pitts­burgh Steel­ers, whose in­juries make Den­ver a pro­hib­i­tive fa­vorite? Heaven for­bid. His name no longer would be Kubes in this town. It would be dirt.

So I asked Ku­biak: Do play­ers or the coach face more pres­sure in the play­offs?

“That’s a good ques­tion. I’ve never re­ally thought of that. … Of course, when I was a player, I wasn’t start­ing many of those play­off games,” replied Ku­biak, pok­ing fun of his sta­tus as the backup quar­ter­back to El­way from 1983-91, with his usual self­dep­re­cat­ing good hu­mor.

“Be­ing a coach? I don’t know. Your prepa­ra­tion is the same. Ob­vi­ously, the stakes get higher, but that’s why you’re in the busi­ness.”

Beat the Steel­ers? This is the game Ku­biak was hired to win.

The Bron­cos parted ways with John Fox for a num­ber of rea­sons, from the painfully slow de­vel­op­ment of young draft choices such as Cody La­timer and Michael Schofield to the per­cep­tion that Fox’s coach­ing staff was more in­ter­ested a year ago in land­ing that next job rather than beat­ing In­di­anapo­lis in the play­offs.

But a team with Su­per Bowl as­pi­ra­tions has been shocked twice in its open­ing post­sea­son game dur­ing a three-year span. If you want to know why Ku­biak is here, that’s got to be No. 1 on the list.

So Ku­biak can­not lose to the Steel­ers. Oth­er­wise, what was the point of hir­ing him?

While coach of the year hon­ors will go to Ron Rivera for nearly lead­ing Carolina to an un­de­feated sea­son or Andy Reid for res­cu­ing Kansas City from the depths of a 1-5 start, what Ku­biak has done with the Bron­cos is re­mark­able in a more sub­tle way.

Yes, Den­ver’s of­fen­sive pro­duc­tion dropped from 482 points in 2014 to 355 points dur­ing Ku­biak’s first sea­son as coach, slip­page of more than a touch­down per game. But from the mo­ment El­way slashed Man­ning’s pay, this felt like a tran­si­tion year, yet Ku­biak coaxed the No. 1 seed out of the Bron­cos, de­spite los­ing Ryan Clady and Tyler Sam­brailo, his top of­fen­sive tack­les, to in­jury.

Not long ago, I men­tioned to Man­ning it must have been dif­fi­cult to ac­cept a pay cut, and the vet­eran quar­ter­back abruptly ended the con­ver­sa­tion by say­ing “I don’t want to get into all of that” in a tone that sug­gested it re­mains a touchy sub­ject. While Man­ning de­serves full credit for bat­tling back from a foot in­jury that bur­dened him with the em­bar­rass­ment of a 0.0 quar­ter­back rat­ing dur­ing a Novem­ber loss to Kansas City, it should also be un­der­scored how Ku­biak doggedly kept the faith in a fad­ing quar­ter­back whose pride took hard hits all sea­son long.

Give Wade Phillips ku­dos for the Bron­cos fin­ish­ing first in to­tal de­fense, but try not to for­get that Ku­biak hired a 68-yearold de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor who was out of work a year ago.

Com­ing off a bye, the first play­off game for a No. 1 seed is tricky, be­cause it is the ul­ti­mate ev­ery­thing-to-lose sit­u­a­tion. De­spite the ben­e­fit of rest and home-field ad­van­tage, the top seeds in the post­sea­son tour­na­ment are an alarm­ingly mod­est 11-9 in their play­off open­ers dur­ing the past 10 years. My the­ory? Foot­ball coaches do feel the pres­sure of win­ning a cham­pi­onship, and in that first step on the long road to the Su­per Bowl, the coach of a No. 1 seed of­ten tries to man­age risk rather than boldly play­ing to win.

Dur­ing the play­offs, as play­ers are coached to not say any­thing con­tro­ver­sial, it be­comes more com­mon to par­rot the mes­sage heard in team meet­ings. And it’s ob­vi­ous that mis­take-free foot­ball is be­ing preached to the Bron­cos.

But big mo­ments call for bold ac­tion. And it’s hard to win big with the mantra: Don’t mess up. So I asked Ku­biak how he bal­ances the de­sire to play clean foot­ball with the ne­ces­sity of let­ting tal­ent flow in a big game.

“I talk about be­ing ag­gres­sive,” Ku­biak said. “I want their ag­gres­sion, as a foot­ball team and a player. I want their con­fi­dence. We’re go­ing to make mis­takes in the game. You’re go­ing to make them, but come back and make the next play. I want them fly­ing around and hav­ing fun, be­cause like I said: They de­serve the right to play this game.”

There’s only one way for a big fa­vorite to pound a wounded un­der­dog into sub­mis­sion: Swing that ham­mer. “Let’s go get af­ter it,” Ku­biak said.

Bron­cos coach Gary Ku­biak has faced nu­mer­ous chal­lenges in his first sea­son in Den­ver, but the play­offs are the rea­son he was brought in. The Bron­cos have been up­set in two of the last three sea­sons in their first play­off game. Den­ver Post file

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