Coming off a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants the year before was disappointing, however #1 draft pick John Elway had arrived. By all accounts Elway came of age with “The Drive”, the 98 yard march in Cleveland Municipal Stadium in the last minutes of the AFC Championship Game. Denver tied it at 20 in the final minutes and won 23-20 in OT.
The game was seen as an all time classic. Cleveland’s “Dawg Defense” smarted for over a year feeling as though they let the Brown’s fans down and swore to get revenge against the Broncos, and Elway in particular. Two weeks later Elway came up a little short in his upset bid of the New York Giants out in the Rose Bowl, Super Bowl XXI, yet had a bright future. Denver would have many opportunities with a quarterback who conceivably could carry a team seemingly all by himself…wouldn’t they??
Bronco fans were buoyed with more optimism for the future with Elway than wracked with Super Bowl disappointment. After all, this franchise hadn’t won a league championship in their first 26 years of existence. They hadn’t been among the league’s elite since the late 70s. This was the first time the Broncos had a legitimate “franchise quarterback” and Elway followed up his ’86 campaign with a better one the following season.
Elway’s mobility was a vital element in the offense; he would scramble for first downs, scramble to keep passing plays alive, then deliver the ball anywhere on the field with his rocket arm. The offense being more potent helped resurrect the Orange Crush defense by keeping drives alive and the defense rested. Many pundits predicted that 1987 would be the Broncos year.
Enter the 1987 season; the Broncos bolstered their passing attack with speedy receiver Ricky Nattiel from Florida. He supplemented incumbents Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson and the three proved harder to defense. The “Three Amigos” were deadlier than ever thanks to an increasing penchant of Bronco coach Dan Reeves to go with more 3 receiver sets to create mismatches.
Steady play came from Sammy Winder at running back. Versatile Steve Sewell saw increased playing time as a third down back with the loss of Gerald Willhite due to injury. Points rang up all year as the Broncos went 11-4 (strike shortened year) and earned home field advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs with a 24-0 win over San Diego in the snow in the final week. So this year, if they faced nemesis Cleveland, it would be in the friendly confines of Mile High Stadium.
From 1977 – 1990 the Denver Broncos enjoyed the best home record in all the NFL. It was loud, the steel framing of the stadium & stairs made it louder when the 75,000 fans began to stomp on them. Already vociferous in nature, the din of the fans, along with the thin air that made it hard to breathe for hyper ventilating opponents. It made Mile High a most inhospitable place. Many teams fell victim to this lethal combination….except one.
The Cleveland Browns were on a collision course with the Broncos. They were running roughshod over the AFC Central and again finishing with a 10-5 record. Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, Earnest Byner led the offense, where Clay Matthews, the late Eddie Johnson, Hanford Dixon, Ray Ellis, and Frank Minnifield again led the Dawg defense which added a new wrinkle. To take advantage of their superior cornerback play started to employ the “Bear” defense which was the Browns version of the “46 defense.”
As the AFC Championship began, Elway was on fire taking a 14-3 lead as Cleveland couldn’t get out of their own way. Several turnovers kept the Browns fighting an uphill battle. He kept play after play going with his legs and scrambling to find open receivers. They built a 21-3 halftime lead and when the Browns threatened to comeback, Elway made plays to turn the momentum.
When Cleveland closed the score to 21-10, three plays later he escapes a 3 man rush scrambles out and hits Mark Jackson. He eludes 3 defenders and completes an 80 yard touchdown to put the Browns behind by 18 points again at 28-10. Once the Browns orchestrated a second half come back tying it at 31, he then drives the Broncos to the winning touchdown to Sammy Winder to make it 38-31. They withstood a final charge and recovers Earnest Byner’s fumble to escape to Super Bowl XXII.
Denver needed every great play from Elway that day to edge the Browns. His second AFC Championship solidified his position as one of the premier QBs with a bright future ahead. All he had to do was win a Super Bowl and he would have his second chance against the Washington Redskins.
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