ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Mike Shanahan probably never has to win another Super Bowl to go down as one of the outstanding coaches in NFL history.
He does, however, need to win another soon to get the monkey off his back.
He has won two Super Bowls as a head coach; been to six all together and won three, one as offensive coordinator of the 1994 San Francisco 49ers.
He was the last head coach to win back-to-back Super Bowls until the Patriots' Bill Belichick did it. But for the last six seasons, since his last win in the Big Game, Shanahan has failed to win a playoff game.
This does not diminish what he has done or who he is. In fact, sometimes when you win the big one when you're a young coach and have the rest of your career ahead of you, it's hard to live up to the glory days. Bill Parcells has suffered from that, to some degree, as well.
Saturday night's divisional playoff matchup against the Patriots is a crossroads game for Shanahan. It is his biggest game since his Broncos defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19, in the Super Bowl Jan. 31, 1999.
He has rebuilt the Broncos, despite some personnel misses (including drafting Maurice Clarett), though he has never drafted higher than 15th in the first round. But his team is 13-3 this season, with two of the losses by a total of 5 points.
The Broncos drew a first-round bye, and can advance to the AFC Championship game by defeating the Patriots at Invesco Field at Mile High, in the process preventing the Patriots from an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl win.
Shanahan has dealt with the unfair criticism that he hasn't won since John Elway retired. He also endured a double whammy when running back Terrell Davis's career ended prematurely.
Look at some of the dynasties and what's the common thread? Belichick has won three Super Bowls with Tom Brady; Jimmy Johnson won two with Troy Aikman, who in turn won one with Barry Switzer; Chuck Noll won four Super Bowls with Terry Bradshaw; and Bill Walsh won three with Joe Montana, who also won one for George Seifert. Earlier, Vince Lombardi won multiple championships with another Hall of Famer -- Bart Starr.
In all those cases, the star quarterback (Aikman is eligible for the Hall of Fame this year for the first time) was a constant. All of which makes the Redskins' Joe Gibbs winning Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks -- Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien, none of them of Hall of Fame-caliber -- perhaps the greatest coaching feat ever. If there's a genius among the geniuses (and yes, we understand that Gibbs's offenses featured a power running game, including Hall of Famer John Riggins) it is Gibbs, who is already enshrined in Canton, Ohio, and has done a pretty fair job of getting the Redskins into the second round of the playoffs in his second tour of duty.
Shanahan's drought hasn't been horrible. His only losing year was 6-10 in 1999, the season after his second Super Bowl championship. Since then, Shanahan's Broncos have gone 11-5, 8-8, 9-7, 10-6, 10-6, and 13-3.
''I think he has a little more gray hair, but other than that he hasn't changed much except that the days are shorter here than they used to be," said defensive end Trevor Pryce, who along with center Tom Nalen, offensive lineman Matt Lepsis, receiver Rod Smith, kicker Jason Elam, and tight end/offensive lineman Dwayne Carswell (who is on injured reserve) are the only holdovers from the Broncos' last Super Bowl team. ''He's evolved in that area where he's tried to save guys' legs. I guess you can read into that that he's a kinder, gentler coach."
One thing that hasn't changed about Shanahan is that he can still coach quarterbacks. Which is why he took a chance on Jake Plummer last season.
Shanahan has brilliantly harnessed Plummer, turning him from an undisciplined, wild thrower into a formidable weapon. Entering this season, Plummer had directed 19 comeback drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, the most in the NFL since 1995. So, the talent was there.
Shanahan still lets Plummer do his thing, but has also stressed that turnovers aren't a part of winning football. Shanahan has convinced the masses that Plummer has changed, but Saturday night the quarterback will have to do his own convincing, against a defense that is playing its best football of the season.
On offense, the Broncos consistently have balance. They have produced more rushing yards than any team since 1995, but that balance hasn't paid off of late.
''It's been frustrating for all of us because in this organization you play the game to win Super Bowls," Pryce said. ''When you don't, no matter who you have out there on the field, it wears on you after a while."
There was talk of stripping Shanahan of his GM duties at one point, but owner Pat Bowlen stuck with his coach. And there was the tempting offer Shanahan received to coach at the University of Florida. That, too, never came to pass.
Super Bowl wins buy you time as a coach, but eventually the fan base grows impatient. The reputation you've built doesn't become tarnished, but Shanahan is no longer the Teflon figure he was in the mid-to-late-'90s.
Shanahan, though, has survived all of that. He got to wild-card games in 2000, 2003, and 2004, but they all ended in losses -- 21-3 to the Ravens, 41-10 to the Colts, and 49-24 to the Colts.
''I think we all want to win this for ourselves and for Coach Shanahan," Pryce said. ''We're trying to forge our own identity different from the Super Bowls. John Elway's been away here for many years now. T.D. [Davis] is gone. That's no longer the talk around here, and personally I don't see it mentioned all that much. John was more than a quarterback, he was an institution."
Shanahan's got home-field advantage on his side. He's 70-18 in Denver since 1995. He has got the best coaching record of the last 11 years, 114-62.
It's always fun to see what happens when a great offensive mind meets a great defensive mind. Belichick has some advantages, of course, because he has Brady.
Shanahan has understood and taken advantage of a Hall of Fame quarterback, albeit it in the latter stages of Elway's career. But now Shanahan has to do it a different way. If he pulls it off -- beats New England here, beats Indianapolis or Pittsburgh next week, and gets to the Super Bowl, the monkey's gone, and then we're talking about Shanahan the way we used to talk about him.