Denver Broncos and the Missing Ring

Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images

Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images

With Las Vegas making the Denver Broncos the prohibitive favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, I thought I would take a few articles to look back in Broncos’ history and review some of the greatest seasons in team history.

This week I look back at the 1996 Broncos.

One of my favorite shows on NFL Network is Missing Rings. Each one hour episode features a great team that somehow came up short in its quest for a Super Bowl title. The shows — featuring the ’79 Chargers, ’88 Bengals, ‘70s Vikings, and ‘90s Bills — are an hour-long feature on those teams failing to win the big one. After watching those episodes I felt that the ’96 Broncos should have been a candidate for a Missing Rings show of its own.

Everyone knows about the ’97 and ’98 Broncos teams which won Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII, respectively. However, one can make the case that the ’96 Broncos were the best team of the bunch.

Coming of the great 1995 draft, which saw the team obtain Terrell Davis (RB), the 1996 draft brought in John Mobley (LB) and Tory James (CB). The veterans like John Elway, Gary Zimmerman and Steve Atwater quickly meshed with the youngsters.

After wins at home versus the Jets and Buccaneers and at the Seahawks, Denver traveled to Arrowhead Stadium, which has historically been a house of horrors for the Broncos. This game was no different as Elway threw 2 picks and lost a fumble and the Chiefs won 17-14. That was the last time the Broncos would lose until they clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Denver rolled off nine straight wins on its way to 12-1. The Broncos statistically had 4th highest scoring offense and the 7th best scoring defense. They demolished the eventual AFC Champion Patriots in New England, when Shannon Sharpe famously picked up the courtesy phone yelled “Mr. President, we need the National Guard, we need as many men as you can spare because we are killing the Patriots!”

Hindsight being 20/20, clinching home field advantage in Week #13 ended up hurting Denver’s playoff chances. Coach Mike Shanahan decided to rest most of the starters against the Packers in Green Bay and then after a meaningless win over the hated Raiders, the Broncos lost to the Chargers in San Diego to finish the season with an AFC best record of 13-3.

After upsetting the Buffalo Bills in the wildcard round, the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars appeared to be easy pickings for the powerful Broncos. However, the young Jags, led by quarterback Mark Brunell, had other ideas. While the Broncos looked lethargic from not having played a meaningful game in five weeks, the Jaguars were sharp and practically flawless.

Brunell had the game of his life, throwing for 245 and 2 TDs (with no picks) but also hurt the Broncos with his legs, rushing for 44 yards.

Nicknamed the “Ambush at Mile High”, the Jaguars edged Denver 30-27 to end the season that started with such promise and Super Bowl dreams. The endearing image from the game is an out-of-shape Michael Dean Perry not getting off the field in time on a 3rd down stop that gave the Jags a first down and kept a scoring drive alive.

Years later, Elway would call the loss to the Jaguars worse than any of the three Super Bowl blowout losses. I would definitely agree. Quite frankly, had Denver not won the Super Bowl the following two years, I probably wouldn’t be able to write about it rationally. What makes it even tougher to swallow is knowing that at full strength the Broncos could have beaten the Packers in SB XXXI (which they proved the following year in SB XXXII).

I watched the game with the other 11 owners in my fantasy football league. None of them were Bronco fans. One can imagine the amount of grief I caught from my fellow owners as I watched Denver blow its chance to win a ring, a three-peat and pro football immortality.

So to my fellow Bronco fans I say, don’t be distraught about last year’s loss to the Ravens. History could repeat itself as a team with a 37 year old quarterback uses a playoff upset as motivation to win back-to-back Super Bowls.

Next week Preview: 1977 Broncos and the Birth of the Orange Crush