Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning throws against the Indianapolis Colts during the first half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
Denver Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations and General Manager, John Elway, watches his players prior to an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
ENGLEWOOD, Colorado — The Denver Broncos figured they'd be talking about facing Tom Brady this week, not pondering Peyton Manning's future and wondering who will be their next coach.
Even with their ailing QB scuffling down the stretch, the Broncos sauntered into the playoffs certain they had found the formula to avenge last year's Super Bowl plunge. That mixture featured balance on offense, dominance on defense and solid special teams.
"Yeah, we definitely had the ingredients," linebacker Steven Johnson said. "It just didn't work out our way. So, we've just got to learn from it. Go home and sulk. Eat some ice cream for a couple of days. And then snap out of it and try to go back to work."
GM John Elway gets no such break as he searches for a new coach while sifting through the wreckage of another season-ending debacle in which the Broncos lost as heavy favorites.
Their lack of fire in Denver's 24-13 loss to Indianapolis on Sunday led to a quick parting with coach John Fox less than 24 hours later.
Speculation about who will replace Fox starts with Baltimore offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak because of his close ties to Elway, whom Kubiak backed up at quarterback during their playing days together.
Elway met with offensive coordinator Adam Gase on Wednesday morning. Gase, the hottest young offensive mind in this year's crop of head coaching candidates, had a lengthy second interview with the San Francisco 49ers on Tuesday in Denver.
After failing for the third straight time to parlay the best regular-season record into a Super Bowl title, the Broncos face an offseason of uncertainty unlike anything they've experienced since closing the chapter on Tebowmania three years ago.
Manning, who was bothered by spotty protection all season and a strained right thigh this last month, is pondering retirement.
Elway asked him not to make a rash decision — although he'll need an answer before the last day of the league year, March 9, when Manning's $19 million salary for 2015 becomes guaranteed.
If Manning returns, the Broncos might have to ask him to restructure the final two years of his contract to free up money to bolster the roster, particularly the porous O-line.
His protection failed to give him enough time or space to step into his throws. When opponents used the Seahawks' Super Bowl template and clogged the crossing routes, Manning had to throw outside the numbers and morphed from one of the all-time greats into a pedestrian passer, one who overthrew his receivers eight times Sunday.
Even if he won't have to move on from Manning — who's 2,147 yards, or about a half-season's worth, shy of Brett Favre's career passing yardage record — Elway has a long to-do list this offseason.
Among their dozen unrestricted free agents are star receiver Demaryius Thomas, Pro Bowl tight end Julius Thomas and nose tackle and defensive captain Terrance "Pot Roast" Knighton.
Knighton could follow Jack Del Rio to Oakland. Drafted by Del Rio in Jacksonville, Knighton thrived under his tutelage in Denver. He recently told The Associated Press, "I want to be wherever Jack is."
Cornerback Chris Harris Jr. doesn't want to see Knighton go.
"I love the way he plays and what he brought to our team every day," Harris said. "I'm going to send him the same message I'm sending Peyton: 'Come back!'"
Wes Welker, who's coming off his worst statistical season since 2005, said he's not sure he wants to return to Denver, adding, "There are a lot of things I've got to figure out."
Same with Elway, who pledged to address his O-line this offseason after fixing his defense last year.
"Having been a quarterback, he knows that I'm going to try to take care of him and that offensive line," Elway said of Manning. "We always want to protect the quarterback. I think a change in scenery for those guys might help them also."
Starters Orlando Franklin and Will Montgomery are free agents.
If Manning retires, backup Brock Osweiler, who served a three-year apprenticeship under the five-time MVP, is ready to roll.
Osweiler, who mopped up four games this season and threw his first career touchdown pass three weeks ago, said: "I will approach this offseason the same exact way whether he comes back or doesn't come back."
"Brock has made that progress that you would hope he would make," Elway said. "What's difficult is he hasn't gotten a lot of playing time. When that time comes, we'll see where he is. (But) the training that he's gotten up to this point is second to none."