DENVER BRONCOS: 23
CLEVELAND BROWNS: 20
By Phil Barber
(Jan. 5, 2000) How does Cleveland, Ohio, feel about John Elway? If you're looking for an equivalent, you might start with Atlanta's regard for General William Tecumseh Sherman.
While most of America came to look fondly upon the Denver Broncos' charismatic quarterback, especially as the crows' feet gathered around his eyes in recent seasons, Cleveland was left with nothing but an abiding enmity. Elway socked it to the hard-luck city several times during his 16-year NFL career. But in the 1986 AFC Championship Game, he inflicted an irreparable wound with a 14-play sequence now known as The Drive. In the process, he created enough lasting impressions to earn the contest a spot at No. 4 on the list of the Most Memorable NFL Games of the Century.
Though they had won four NFL championships between 1950 and 1964, the Browns had never (and still haven't) played in a Super Bowl. In 1986, they were sure it was their turn.
The '86 squad was led by a stingy, quick-thinking defense. Responding to a quote by cornerback Frank Minnifield, the home fans had taken to calling themselves the Dawgs. They wore rubber snouts and threw femur-shaped dog biscuits onto the turf, and they usually had plenty to howl about.
The offense revolved around wildly popular quarterback Bernie Kosar, whose unconventional (some would say unsightly) style made him the anti-Elway. Kosar was more than effective in his own right. He passed for 3,874 yards during the 1986 regular season, and he added an NFL postseason-record 489 while leading the Browns to a 23-20, overtime victory (a score that would soon take on a much less rosy connotation to Browns fans) over the Jets in an AFC Divisional Playoff Game.
As the day grew long at Cleveland Stadium, it looked as though Kosar might once again be the Man of the Hour.
tense title game was tied 10-10 at halftime and 13-13 midway through the
fourth quarter. But the Browns broke it open with 5:43 left in regulation
time, when Kosar hit wide receiver Brian Brennan for a sudden 48-yard touchdown
The Broncos flubbed the ensuing kickoff, and so began the most important possession of their season inside their 2-yard line. As Broncos' fans love to tell you, it was first-and-98, with a frenzied crowd all but foaming at the mouth.
Elway stepped into the huddle with 5:32 left, and he smiled. "Well," guard Keith Bishop said, "we got these guys right where we want them."
Not all of his offensive teammates could force a laugh, but the confidence proved to be contagious.
Denver showed little urgency. Elway threw a 5-yard flare to halfback Sammy Winder to gain a little breathing room. A quick pitch to Winder gained 3 more. Winder got the ball again on third-and-2, and he gained two yards and several inches. The Broncos had made the first down. Now a mere 88 yards lay before them.
Then it was Winder again, for 3 yards. Cleveland was happy to encounter such an unambitious game plan; an expired clock would be just as friendly as an interception.
Elway dropped back on second down and found his primary receivers covered. He stepped up to avoid the rush and took off to his left, sliding at the 26 and after an 11-yard gain. The Browns would spend much of The Drive in a three-man rush, hoping to contain Elway. In retrospect, perhaps they should have created more pressure. On the next play he hit the versatile Steve Sewell for a big 22-yard completion. The Broncos were at their 48, and the Dawgs felt the hair on their backs beginning to stand on end.
The feeling got worse when Elway and wide receiver Steve Watson connected on a 12-yard completion. But after an incomplete pass, backup nose tackle Dave Puzzuoli wrapped up Elway for an 8-yard sack. Now it was third-and-18 from the Cleveland 48, and Elway was limping noticeably on a sprained left ankle.
"Just try to get half of it," Denver head coach Dan Reeves told his quarterback on the sidelines. "We'll get the rest on fourth down."
almost got wiped out. Caught up in the noise and excitement, Elway mistimed
two visual cues while lined up in Shotgun formation. He pointed to Watson
(to get him in motion) and he stomped his heel (the signal for the cadence
to begin). The problem was, he was supposed to point first. He did both
at the same time, and Watson was directly behind center Bill Bryan when
the ball was snapped.
"It grazed his butt," Elway explained later.
Elway picked the ball off the ground and fired a pass to wide receiver Mark Jackson. It was good for 20 yards, and a first down at the Cleveland 28.
The Broncos now scrapped the huddle. Elway threw incomplete to Watson, hit Sewell on a 14-yard lob, missed Watson again, then ran 9 yards on a quarterback draw.
It was third-and-1 from the Browns' 5, with only 39 seconds left. Two teams and one game clock all were about to collide on a frozen goal line. "Release Sixty-Six," Elway called in the huddle.
Chip Banks, Cleveland's Pro Bowl linebacker, came hard on a blitz. Elway was backing up as he delivered. The pass was "low and hot," according to Jackson, who went to the turf to make the fateful catch. The Broncos tied the game.
The Browns won the overtime coin flip, but Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenberg made a big tackle to force a punt. The Broncos got the ball on the Denver 25, and the ensuing drive was anticlimactic, worthy only of a small "d." Elway hit tight end Orson Mobley for passes of 22 and 28 yards, positioning Rich Karlis (who grew up about 70 miles away in Salem, Ohio) for the winning 33-yard field goal.
A legend was born. A city lay in ruins.
In the postgame locker room, Elway was flashing his broad grin. "It hasn't sunk in yet," he said to reporters. "I'm going to have to slap myself."
At least 80,000 Clevelanders would have lined up for the honor.