Steeler Donta Jones attempts to tackle Bronco Terrell Davis during AFC Championship. (Doug Mills, Associated Press)

The 1997-98 Denver Bronco Revenge Tour – Revisited

The Broncos finally won their first Lombardi Trophy in 1998 when they beat the Green Bay Packers 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII.  I am assuming most die-hard Bronco fans have a pretty good recollection of that game; not just the final score but some of the details or major plays of the game as well (Terrell Davis’s migraine headache, John Elway’s “helicopter leap,” Eugene Robinson calling the Broncos the Colts, and John Mobley knocking down Favre’s pass, which preserved the victory, to name a few). 
Do you remember the road that led to San Diego, the location of Super Bowl XXXII?  After a disappointing and unexpected loss to the Jacksonsville Jaguars that ended the 1996 season, the Broncos started the 1997 season by winning their first six games.  A fast start like this, once again, wet the appetites of Bronco fans for another division championship, a conference championship, and, ultimately, their first NFL championship.  Unfortunately, losses to Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco toward the end of the season revealed the Broncos were slipping at the wrong time.  The playoff party was here and, unfortunately, the Broncos were invited as a wildcard, and not a division winner, meaning the path to the Super Bowl could be much more difficult.  Looking back, the Broncos docket of playoff opponents, although very difficult games, offered a chance for revenge for Bronco players – redemption for Bronco fans!

Playoff game number one brought the Jaguars back to Denver.  Jacksonville probably came into the game with a bit more confidence due to their 30-27 playoff victory one season earlier.  Unlike that playoff game, the Broncos controlled this one from the initial kickoff and soundly defeated the Jaguars 42-17.  The Broncos’ powerful running game surfaced, and they accumulated over 300 yards rushing.  Bronco running backs Terrell Davis and Derek Loville rushed for 184 yards and 111 yards, respectively.  Playoff game number two forced the Broncos to make a road trip to a familiar location – Arrowhead Stadium.

Cold, wet, and icy conditions met the Broncos and Chiefs as they prepared to face off in the divisional playoff game.  The challenge ahead of the Broncos looked nearly unachievable – they were the road team in one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL, the weather wasn’t the best, and they were facing the conference’s top seeded team.  The game was similar to a 15 round boxing match – both teams taking their shots; some landing and some missing.  In the end, the Broncos got the knockout when Elvis Grbac’s fourth down pass attempt fell incomplete to preserve a 14-10 victory.  Bronco fans, coaches, and players obviously enjoyed the outcome of this game much more than the last time the Broncos visited Kansas City.  A couple months earlier, the Chiefs kicked a 54 yard field goal as time expired giving them a 24-22 victory; initiating a six game stretch that found the Broncos winning only 50% of their remaining games.  Get revenge at Kansas City – check!

Not only did the win in Kansas City allow the Broncos to get a small bit of revenge against the Chiefs, it also stamped their ticket to the AFC Championship.  The opponent for this game – the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Due to the Broncos being a wildcard team, they once again were forced to pack their bags and head east to the steel city.  If the Broncos were to return to the Super Bowl and represent the AFC, the Broncos would have to win at Three Rivers Stadium – a task they could not do in December of that same season; the Steelers won that contest in a convincing manner, 35-24.  Like the game in Kansas City, this game was a hard fought battle.  The play of the game occurred as the game was winding down and the Broncos’ offense was facing third-and-six.  If the Broncos did not convert to a first down, they would be forced to punt; giving the Steelers one last opportunity to tie the game by kicking a field goal or going ahead with a touchdown.  On the other hand, a first down would pretty much end the game and seal the Broncos’ 24-21 victory.  John Elway found Shannon Sharpe for eighteen yards, which allowed the Broncos to run out the clock and start making plans for their fifth Super Bowl appearance. 

The path to Super Bowl XXXII included Jacksonville, Kansas City, and Pittsburgh.  Three playoff games and three opportunities where the Broncos were victorious and able to avenge losses to these same teams that definitely impacted the teams’ goal of winning NFL championships.  What an entertaining ride the 1997-98 season was!

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