By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Denver Broncos, one of the National Football League's most elite franchises, are back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years.
For a team that became accustomed to success after initially struggling to establish themselves among the game's best, it has been a long and agonizing wait for their shot at reclaiming the greatest prize in American team sports.
Now, all that stands between them and the Vince Lombardi Trophy is their showdown with the Seattle Seahawks in New Jersey on February 2.
Established in 1960 in the now-defunct American Football League, the Broncos joined the NFL in 1970 when the two leagues merged but failed to make a single playoff in their first 17 seasons.
It wasn't until 1977 that the Broncos made their first appearance in the postseason after adopting a near impenetrable defensive system that became popularly known as the Orange Crush, partly in reference to the team's colors.
They went on to win their first AFC Championship that same season and advance to the Super Bowl but lost to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Broncos made the playoffs in four of the next seven seasons but had to wait almost a decade for their second appearance in the Super Bowl.
The turning point for the Broncos was the arrival in 1983 of quarterback John Elway, a sublimely talented athlete who had the choice to play in either the NFL or Major League Baseball after being drafted by the New York Yankees.
Elway was initially drafted in the NFL by the Baltimore Colts but refused to play with them and was eventually traded to the Broncos after a complicated and controversial standoff.
With Elway calling the shots, the Broncos quickly became one of the league's top teams, reaching the Super Bowl in the 1986, 1987 and 1989 seasons.
But the ultimate prize frustratingly eluded them as they lost all three of those Super Bowls and had to wait eight more years before making another one.
With Mike Shanahan taking over the role as head coach and Terrell Davis adding some real punch to the offense as the running back, the Broncos finally broke through to win the 32nd Super Bowl in January 1998, beating the Green Bay Packers 31-24.
Davis was named Most Valuable Player, despite missing part of the game because he was suffering from a bad headache.
A year later, the Broncos made it back-to-back championships, confirming the team's greatness at a time when the NFL was spreading its games to a bigger global television audience.
They beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-19, with future Hall of Famer Elway capping off his brilliant career by picking up the MVP award in his last game for the Broncos before he announced his retirement at age 38.
Elway's departure triggered an immediate decline in the fortunes of the Broncos although they did make the playoffs four times between 1999 and 2005 without getting to the Super Bowl.
Elway was Denver's automatic pick at quarterback for 16 seasons but in the first 12 seasons after he retired, the Broncos tried 10 different players in the position.
In 2011, Tim Tebow, who won a Heisman Trophy as the top college player, led the Broncos back to the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and developed a cult following among fans.
But Elway, now working as the Broncos vice president, was unconvinced. During the offseason, Elway signed free agent Peyton Manning to a five-year $96 million deal and traded Tebow the following day.
Although Manning had won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis and was already regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the game, his signing still carried an element of risk.
Manning was already 36 years old and had missed the entire previous season because of a neck injury, but it still proved to be a masterstroke.
With expectations sky high in the Colorado state capital, Manning led the Broncos to the best record in the AFC and a divisional title in his first season, before a double-overtime loss in the divisional round to the Baltimore Ravens, the eventual Super Bowl champions.
Encouraged, Elway went searching for more talent in the offseason and lured three more Pro Bowl players - Wes Welker, Shaun Phillips and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - to the Rocky Mountains.
It proved another instant success as the Broncos went on a record-breaking season, with the most potent offense in the NFL as Manning threw for an unprecedented 55 touchdowns.
As the number one seed in the AFC, the Broncos had a first round bye in the opening week of the playoffs then home field advantage for the remaining rounds.
They were wary of last season's unexpected loss to the Ravens but there were no problems this time around.
In the divisional round, the Broncos held off the San Diego Chargers to win 24-17 then in the conference championship they beat Tom Brady's New England Patriots 26-16.
Now only the Super Bowl awaits.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)