If you gauge the Denver Broncos as a competent organization, few would accuse you of horsepucky. Their seventh Super Bowl berth nudges them into a tie with New England, one ahead of San Francisco and one behind the ringleaders Pittsburgh and -- yep -- Dallas. Seven times in the last 37 years, the mighty Mountain Time Zone NFL loners of the Broncos fan base have salivated over a Super Bowl in which their team would appear.
So the obvious stat that might come as a surprise might be 15: It has been 15 years since the Broncos reached a Super Bowl. Broncomaniacs know this; the rest of us barely noticed. It has been since last century, since the week a debut record by 17-year-old Britney Spears reached No. 1. It has been since 53-year-old John Elway still played, and it has been since a Super Bowl turned at least somewhat on an Atlanta free safety and veteran leader and generally good man who became arrested on Super Bowl Eve for soliciting a Miami police officer posing as a female prostitute.
(Well, at least she was female, went the saying in certain nightclub neighborhoods back then. Imagine the ruckus if she weren't.)
For 15 years, Broncos fans practiced one of fans' best skills: waiting. That brings us to another stat, this one staggering: Of all the TVs on in Denver households on Sunday, 88 percent tuned to Patriots-Broncos. That means only 12 percent watched something else, and that means those 12 percent deserve our consideration and kind thoughts, sort of like Indians who dislike cricket.
That also means the outcome of Patriots-Broncos quelled a whole lot of accumulated yearning. Had you had a child in January 1999, that child probably would be in the ninth grade right about now, turning from 14 to 15, a nearly self-sufficient near-adult, probably even with opinions, maybe just morphing out of the stage of boarding trains with friends in a grating mass of squeals. Instead of thinking about next season in a league balanced enough to dredge hope from almost everybody every new season, Broncos fans can spend the next fortnight thinking about whether their offensive line can keep the NFL's best defense off Peyton Manning the way the 2007-08 Patriots couldn't keep the Giants off Tom Brady.
It's a privilege.
Denver's exit from the wanting list left 17 of 32 franchises with waits of a decade or more, 11 waiting since last century and seven waiting 20 or more years. Using the age-of-offspring method, here are the various groups:
Pre-kindergarten (eight franchises): This group ranges from those children who would still speak mostly gibberish and leave food detritus in the tray to those who would say things so adorable that their parents absolutely could not refrain from telling others about those things. It includes eight franchises with fan bases who have waited four years or fewer: Ravens, 49ers, Patriots, Giants, Packers, Steelers, Saints, Colts. It also depicts perfectly the ways of the new NFL: splintered, with 10 different teams in the last five Super Bowls. If you're a Ravens fan today, you know how it works, and you can complain much less than could, say, a fan of a defending champion in the 1970s, when a common form held stubbornly and four franchises (Dallas, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Miami) hoarded 15 of the 20 Super Bowl berths.
Kindergarten (one franchise): Cardinals fans have waited only five years. Before that, it seemed as if they waited forever.
Elementary School (five franchises): If you're a Bears fan, a child born during your last Super Bowl berth would be just turning 7, probably in first grade, maybe even starting out in semi-organized sports, maybe even already revealing one or both parents as an irrational ref-baiting, coach-hating mouth-foamer in the stands. A child born during the last Eagles Super Bowl would be turning 9 in third grade; for the Panthers it would be 10 in fourth; and for the Bucs and Raiders 11 in fifth. It's curious how the Bucs and Raiders, so unattached generally and geographically, both have careened since they gathered in San Diego in January 2003, the Bucs going 73-103 and 0-2 in playoffs and the Raiders 53-123 and 0-0, raising the philosophical question that could keep you up nights: Is 0-2 better than 0-0?
Middle School (two franchises): The Texans' dive from 2-0 to 2-14 this past season evened them with the Rams, even though that's not quite fair to the Texans, who have existed for only 12 years and need some forgiveness for their wobbly outset. While a 17-year-old in St. Louis might have vague recollection of the Rams in the Super Bowl, a 12-year-old would not, meaning the sixth-grader probably would be unable to spew conspiracy theories on how the Patriots taped the Rams' practices before Super Bowl XXXVI so that their defenders turned up repeatedly in strangely prescient places. The 12-year-old might be less haunted than the 22-year-old.
High School (two franchises): It has been 14 years since the lone berth of the Titans, 15 years since the lone berth of the Falcons. Looking ahead to January 2015, the early money says it will be 15 years for the Titans, and 16 years for the Falcons, as those born during the Spears-Falcons-Elway-undercover-prostitute month of January 1999 might be looking at colleges in earnest, or pretending to look at them only to appease others.
Aiming Toward College, Perhaps (one franchise): Amazingly, across the land next August and September, universities will welcome people born the last time the Cowboys (18 years) saw a Super Bowl. The Cowboys crammed eight appearances into the first 30 Super Bowls, but in case you haven't heard, they haven't reached any of the last 18. In the event you missed it, they haven't been to -- or come close to -- any of the last 18. Just in case you didn't know, they haven't graced a Super Bowl in the last 18.
College (three franchises): The child who shares a birth year with the Jaguars (19 years ago) might be away at college, calling home less frequently than last year, making the break, sampling microbrews, taking classes with those born the last time the Chargers (also 19 years) reached a Super Bowl. This former child would know those a year ahead (Bills, 20 years), which means there are 20-year-old Bills fans unable to recollect when the Super Bowl was an annual given.
Young Adults (three franchises): As a real sense of the waiting some people endure starts to kick in, let's mull that these people are 22 years old, 25 years old and 29 years old. They're out on their own presumably -- or hopefully according to some cultures and less hopefully according to others. (Isn't it bizarre how in some cultures, the neighbors whisper when an offspring lives at home too long, while in others, the neighbors whisper if an offspring moves out without marrying?) Make it 22 years of waiting for Redskins fans, a duration everyone but they hopes will extend into perpetuity, or until the owner sells the club. It's 25 for Bengals fans, 29 for Dolphins fans. There are Dolphins fans who have grown up and finished school and married and reproduced multiple times with only retold tales and highlight reels of fish in Super Bowls. And there are Dolphins fans who have gotten the hang of high school without any real feel for cracking the joke that the pavement on Dan Marino Boulevard near the stadium, for accuracy, ought to look shiny from September to December, then crumble in January.
A Perfect Age (one franchise): Children born the last time the Vikings reached a Super Bowl are 37, old enough to know what they like and dislike while young enough to pursue most all of it. It has been so long that the last Vikings-infused Super Bowl occurred on a Jan. 9, or before the NFL learned to market the pure living hell out of another whole chunk of calendar.
Middle Age (four franchises): Chiefs (44 years), Jets (45 years), Browns (48 years), Lions (48 years). Some of these are grandparents and, in the last two cases, judging by this past season, some have a chance of living alongside the droughts until they're great-grandparents. All good wishes to them and their potentially abundant family trees.