Denver Broncos and The Drive

broncos-elway-the-drive2With 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 1986 Broncos.

In 1984, John Elway’s sophomore year, the Broncos went 13-3 and promptly lost a home playoff game to an underdog. In 1985, Denver went 11-5 but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker, allowing the Patriots to get in and eventually get hammered by the Bears in the Super Bowl.

The team would finish 11-5 again in 1986 but on paper the team did not appear to be as good as the previous two years, finishing 6th in offense and 15th in defense. After an 8-1 start, the Broncos stumbled to a 3-4 record over the last seven weeks. The defense was especially suspect as it surrendered over 28 points a game the last four weeks of the season.

In the divisional round, after Tony Eason threw a 45-yard touchdown to make the score 17-13, it appeared the season would again end with a home playoff defeat. However, Elway threw a 48-yard bomb to Vance Johnson for the go-ahead score and Rulon Jones would sack Eason in the end zone for a safety to seal the 22-17 win. It was the first playoff win of Elway’s storied career.

The win meant a trip to Cleveland for the AFC title game, the first title game for the Broncos since the Orange Crush days.

Because they ended up losing to the Broncos three times in the championship game, fans tend to forget how talented the Marty Schottenheimer-coached team really was. Bernie Kosar was at his peak and both Ernest Byner and Kevin Mack were 1000 yard rushers. The defense was stellar, led by Clay Matthews, Carl Hairston and one of the best CB tandems ever, Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. The also had a little known special teams coach by the name of Bill Cowher.

The Browns went 12-4, which was good for the best record in the AFC. After surviving a brutal double overtime win over the Jets, the Browns appeared ready to defeat the Broncos and qualify for its first appearance in a Super Bowl. After taking a 20-13 lead with less than six minutes left in the game, it looked as if that would be the outcome.

Everyone knows what happened next. Returner Ken Bell muffed the ensuing kickoff, forcing Denver to start the drive at its own two-yard line. Before breaking the huddle for its first play of the drive, Elway famously remarked, “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”

In the end, the muffed kickoff worked in the Broncos’ favor. Knowing Denver had to go 98 yards to get the tying score, Schottenheimer went to a prevent defense. Had the Browns played straight up, it may have been able to stop Elway before he was able to complete the five-yard touchdown to Mark Jackson to send the game into overtime.

Many fans probably don’t remember that the Browns won the toss and received the ball to start OT. Kosar and Company had a chance to win it by scoring on an exhausted Denver defense. But the defense came up with a stop and Elway led a 60 yard drive to set up the winning field goal.

Once again, the AFC title game and not the Super Bowl would be the apex of the season. This would become a recurring theme of the Dan Reeves Era. However, not only would “The Drive” become a legendary NFL Greatest Game (and remains the only AFC title game to go to overtime), it was the game that proved that Elway had finally arrived as a franchise quarterback.

Next week: Denver Broncos and The Fumble