“The hard is what makes it great.” – Jimmy Dugan, as played by Tom Hanks, in A League of Their Own

On more than one occasion, this whole thing looked like it was going to be easy. Go back in time and count the ways – the many, many ways – that it looked as if Denver Broncos ought to win a Super Bowl. Maybe two. Maybe three.

They’ve just been so damn good lately.

As time passes, the Peyton Manning era will be considered among the best, if not the best, chapter in Denver Broncos franchise history. With Manning on the roster, the Broncos have only lost 14 regular season games in four years. That’s not even four losses per year, an impressive .781 winning percentage.

There were bumps along the way – starting off in 2012 with a 2-3 record, then getting unexpectedly ousted from the playoffs on a bitterly cold Saturday in Denver, losing at New England in overtime in 2013 – but by and large, most everything the Broncos did in those first two years looked incredibly easy. From Sep. 30, 2012 to Nov. 17, 2013, Denver only lost two games. One required one of the flukiest plays in NFL playoff history; the other was Manning’s emotional homecoming in Indianapolis. The Broncos finished out the 2012 campaign by winning 11 straight regular season games. They began 2013 by going 9-1.

Not winning a Super Bowl in 2012 could simply be chocked up to bad luck – one bad play, made by one mostly reliable player, at one really, really bad time. It was one that slipped away, a tough break if there ever was one.

In 2013 it was a foregone conclusion: The Broncos were going to win it all. They were miffed about the loss to the Ravens and there was never a question. The season itself felt like a formality; the wait for Feb. 2 – the day that Super Bowl XLVIII was to be played for the first time ever in New York (technically New Jersey) – seemed like an eternity.

But those two weeks between the AFC Championship in Denver – a 26-16 win over the Patriots – and kickoff in the Meadowlands were tough. Despite having the greatest offense in the history of football, the Broncos were banged up on defense. It was bitterly cold, and nothing about New York – not even the bobbing boat on which the Broncos held media sessions – felt routine. No sooner than Manny Ramirez sailed the game’s opening snap over Manning’s head and into the end zone, it felt like another one had already slipped away.

All of a sudden, what should have been two Super Bowls turned into none. Two golden opportunities had slipped away like a dropped pass. Two seasons wasted. It was enough to make any orange-blooded Broncos fan sick. Perhaps this wasn’t so easy after all.

Fear not though. John Elway could save us. He always has. He would again.

The Duke went out and bought the best defense money could buy so that Denver could be just like Seattle. Pair the best offense in the game with a newly formed, more physically imposing defense, and 2014 should be easy, too.

Wrong again. The offense sputtered, and the same coaching staff that was ill-prepared for Super Bowl XLVIII bumbled and stumbled its way to another divisional round exit, just before hopping on a plane to their next coaching gig.

An era that began with a bang was suddenly 0-for-3 when it came to winning the only thing that mattered, a Super Bowl.

And when the 2015 season took flight – and actually, “flight” would be far from accurate – even fans knew that the window that once looked so wide open, was all but closed. This wasn’t a Super Bowl team. Denver had seen them before, and this wasn’t one. The defense was good, but probably not good enough to carry an offense that was a far cry from the juggernaut that crushed defenses in 2013. The quarterback – the one that captained this great era from the start – had grown old before our very eyes. They blew chance after chance to score in the red zone and gave away games that would have positioned them nicely in the postseason.

The whole thing, despite all the wins, was going to go down as a failure. Manning wouldn’t get that sunset sendoff and Denver wasn’t going to hoist its third Lombardi.

Damn if that wasn’t a tough pill to swallow.

But then it happened.

Along the most treacherous road to San Francisco ever traveled, the Broncos had to beat Pittsburgh, a team that embarrassed them earlier in the season, and New England, a favorite despite playing in Denver. Neither game was pretty – they were both gut-wrenching, in fact – but here they were, headed to the Super Bowl. Waiting for them was a team that couldn’t be beat.

But they beat them anyway – in the hardest way possible.

Nothing about winning Super Bowl 50 was easy. In retrospect, none of it – from the day Peyton Manning arrived in Denver to the final gun from Levi’s Stadium – was easy. And that’s okay.

Easy is not what it’s all about.

It’s about Rahim Moore.

It’s about 43-8.

It’s about getting beat by Luck, Brock versus Peyton and stopping the Patriots just one… more… freaking… time.

It’s about taking your kid out of school, trying to find a parking spot in a sea of orange, then squeezing through hoards of people – trying like hell to get to that curb just in time to wave at their favorite Broncos.

It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it.

And the hard is what makes it great. So, so great.