Four days into the new year, 75,301 Bronco fans were treated to a dramatic AFC Divisional Playoff game when the Broncos came from behind to win a classic football game.
The Houston Oilers came into the game one week removed from their 17-10 AFC Wildcard game victory over the New York Jets. The Warren Moon-lead Oilers picked up right where they left off a week earlier and quickly built a 14-0 lead against the Broncos resulting from touchdown receptions by Haywood Jeffires and Drew Hill. The Broncos finally got on the scoreboard with a 10 yard pass from John Elway to Vance Johnson. Before the break, Houston added another touchdown by Curtis Duncan, and the Broncos answered with a one yard TD run by Greg Lewis; capping off a long drive set up when Steve Atwater intercepted Warren Moon with just over six minutes left in the half. Unfortunately, due to a missed extra point after the Bronco’s first touchdown, the Broncos went into the locker room at halftime losing 21-13 to the AFC Central Division Champions. Would this missed extra point come back to haunt the Broncos and possibly prevent their season from continuing?
In the second half, the Broncos’ defense finally managed to stop the high-powered Houston passing offense, holding the Oilers offense to one field goal, which came early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the Broncos offense was also controlled and only managed a 49 yard field goal in the 3rd quarter. As the games conclusion drew closer, the Broncos still found themselves 8 points down and in desperate need of Mile High Magic. The Mile High Magician with a number seven on his jersey began to warm up and wave his orange and blue wand, making it known this game was far from over.
The Broncos went on an 80 yard drive, capped off by a 1 yard TD plunge by Gregg Lewis which decreased the Broncos deficit to one point. A major, drive-sustaining play during this endeavor was Elway’s pass to Michael Young on fourth and four. Twenty-six yards later, the Broncos were not just knocking on the door of the endzone, they were preparing to knock it down! At the time of this play, Bronco fans were not aware that converting fourth downs would become common place as this game came to an end. One point down and just under seven minutes to go, the momentum had shifted back to the home team, revitalizing Broncomania!
The Broncos’ defense was able to prevent Houston from adding to their one point lead, but unfortunately, Houston was able to consume four-plus minutes off of the game clock. When the Houston punt was downed at the two yard line, I suspect many Bronco fans quickly recalled the Cleveland Brown playoff game when the Broncos got the ball on the two yard line and needed a 98 yard drive to force overtime in the 1986 AFC Championship game. That possession eventually became known as “The Drive” and catapulted John Elway into NFL stardom. What would this possession mean to Bronco history? It was a playoff game, it was not a conference championship, and this game was being played in the friendly confines of Mile High Stadium – not Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Most importantly, the Broncos needed only a field goal to take the lead – not a touchdown just to tie the game. Even though there were many differences, Bronco fans had definitely entered the nail-biting phase of the playoff game.
No timeouts remaining, 2:07 on the game clock, and the season on the line, John the Magician was warmed up and had taken center stage. While many people get nervous and find it difficult to perform when it matters most, John Elway has proven he thrives in opportunities exactly like this. Bronco fans were about to witness Elway and the Broncos add another chapter to his book of comebacks. The first fourth down conversion resulted in Elway rushing for seven yards; passing the first down marker by one yard. Four plays later, the Broncos were staring another fourth down in the face, this time needing ten yards for the drive, and their season, to continue. Like the first fourth down conversion of this drive, Elway was pushed out of the pocket, and somehow had to get ten yards. Elway scrambled to his left, looking for a gap that would allow him to rush for the first down or to an open receiver whom he could dump the ball. The latter option was what was available, so Elway took it. Although the pass wasn’t pretty, it was completed to Vance Johnson. After the reception, Johnson turned up the field and easily took the Broncos into field goal range. After Steve Sewell ran the ball down to the eleven yard line, and a spike by Elway to stop the clock, the Bronco field goal team came on the field to attempt to kick a game-winning field goal. Despite an attempt by the Oilers to ice David Treadwell, and a less than perfect snap, Treadwell successfully completed the field goal.
Statistically, Elway completed nineteen passes for 257 yards and rushed six times for thirty-nine yards. Arguably, the three most important plays, if not the most memorable, were the three fourth down conversions that were absolutely critical in leading the Broncos to their 26-24 victory. As Jack Pardee, Warren Moon, and the rest of the Houston Oiler team walked off the field that evening heartbroken and in disbelief, the Bronco team, and the fans that remained in the stadium, were preparing to celebrate one of the more memorable playoff games in Denver Bronco history.
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