It’s hard to believe it has been a month since the Denver Broncos were badly beaten in Super Bowl XLVIII! Much like I suspected, at least for me, the loss is getting easier to accept the farther we get from that awful Sunday in New York. Like I’ve done in the past to help get through the offseason, I pulled out an old recording of a Bronco playoff game from the late 80’s. For a blast from the past, and a brief overview of the AFC Divisional playoff between the New England Patriots and the Denver Broncos on January 4, 1987, please continue reading.
Having won the AFC West with an 11-5 record, the Broncos were seeded number two entering the playoffs, behind the Cleveland Browns who finished the season with a 12-4 record. The New England Patriots, due to a 27-20 loss in September in Denver, were seeded third and were also winners of their division.
The Broncos, who had failed to score a touchdown in the first quarter in their previous five games, unfortunately continued that streak in this game. Following a possession that ended due to a John Elway interception, the Broncos drove down the field and had a first and goal. Following a delay of game against Elway for spiking the ball out of frustration when he found out his run and dive at the goal line was not ruled a touchdown; the Broncos had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Rich Karlis, and a 3-0 lead. Highlights of the first scoring drive of the day were Elway passes to Steve Sewell (39 yards) and Steve Watson (21 yards) on consecutive plays that totaled 60 yards.
The Broncos lead was short lived because the Patriots quickly struck back, starting on the first play of the second quarter when Patriots quarterback, Tony Eason, connected with Stanley Morgan for a 36-yard reception. Two plays later the duo connected again, this time for a 19-yard touchdown. The throw and catch, plus the ensuing extra point, gave the Patriots a 7-3 lead.
Midway through the second quarter, Elway capped off the second Bronco scoring drive of the day, when he scrambled for a 22-yard touchdown run. The touchdown run, which was a called pass, occurred on third down when Elway took off out of the pocket when all the receivers were covered. The play was a reminder of the vintage Elway that Bronco fans remember – he could escape the pocket and make things happen with his arm, or even his legs.
With time running out in the first half, the Broncos had the ball again and were trying to build on their 10-7 lead. On third down, Elway dropped back to pass and was hit by New England linebacker Andre Tippett. The pass was intercepted by New England’s Johnny Rembert and ended any hopes of another Bronco score in the first half. While not scoring was disappointing, more disturbing was the fact that Elway injured his ankle when he was hit by Tippett and had to be helped to the locker room. The Patriots added a field goal right before half time making the score 10-10.
The Broncos received the kickoff to open the third quarter and then drove down the field, consuming almost half of the third quarter. The drive, which included 57 rushing yards, ended with another Rich Karlis field goal. The Broncos now had a 13-10 lead, and it appeared that Elway, somewhat gimpy due to the ankle injury, would finish the game.
Down three points, and needing to gain momentum, the Patriots dug into their bag of trick plays and pulled out a winner. From the Broncos’ 45 yard line, Eason pitched the ball to his left to running back Mosi Tatupu. Rather than continuing running around the left end, Tatupu stopped and threw the ball back to Eason. Eason, with no pressure, stepped up and fired a perfect strike to Stanley Morgan. The Eason to Morgan pass covered 45-yards and definitely gave the Patriots the momentum, as well as a 17-13 lead in the game.
While the Broncos were down, they were not out, and Elway proved it on the last play of the third quarter. As the recipient of an offside call against the Patriots due to Elway’s famous hard count, the Broncos had a free play, and Elway took advantage of it. Going deep, Elway connected with Vance Johnson for a 48-yard touchdown pass. Johnson made the catch while falling backwards and landing in the end zone. The throw and catch gave the Broncos a 20-17 lead with only one quarter remaining.
With just under two minutes remaining in the game and the score still 20-17, the Broncos faced a third down. For New England, who was out of timeouts, it was absolutely critical they get a stop if they had any chance to win this game and advance in the playoffs. For the Broncos, a first down would basically end the game. Not only did the Patriots get the stop, they also forced running back Gene Lang out of bounds, saving precious time on the game clock.
Bronco punter Mike Horan had a great punt and Irving Fryar caught the punt at the 1-yard line, rather than letting it bounce into the end zone, which would have given the ball to the patriots at the twenty. After catching it, Fryar ran to his left and was only able to get to the ten yard line. On the next play Rulon Jones rushed up the middle and sacked Tony Eason for a sack in the end zone and a 22-17 lead. The sack and safety forced the Patriots to do a free kick. While doing a free kick, teams are allowed to attempt an onside kick, which the Patriots did. Vance Johnson recovered the attempted onside kick, and the celebration in Denver began.
With the 22-17 victory, the Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship against the Cleveland Browns. Thanks to “The Drive” and a Rich Karlis field goal in overtime, the Broncos would defeat the Cleveland Browns 23-20. Ironically, the Browns won their divisional game on January 3, 1987 23-20 in double overtime against the New York Jets.