Broncos Classic: 1985 San Diego at Denver


Every once in a while, I am going to reach into the vault and discuss a game from the Denver Broncos storied history. If you were at one of the featured games, or if you have some great memories associated with the game, I would love to hear about them.

There are literally hundreds of nail-biting victories, unbelievable plays, and chaotic finishes from the Broncos past to choose from. But one game that always seems to come up when talking about an amazing Broncos finish is a 1985 contest with the San Diego Chargers at Mile High Stadium.

In the mid 1980’s, Mile High Magic was already in full swing. Mile High was known around the league as a place where strange plays occur a little more regularly than anyplace else. It was a place known for wild finishes and amazing comebacks, and of course, a place where the Broncos won a lot more than they lost. And this was before the John Elway legend had really taken off.

On November 17th, 1985, the 7-3 Denver Broncos were in first place in the AFC West. The Dan Fouts led Chargers had beaten the Broncos just 2 weeks earlier in San Diego, but the rematch was being played in the chilly confines of Mile High. The Chargers were 5-5, and they were hoping another victory over the Broncos would pull them into the thick of the division race. John Elway was in his 3rd season with the team, and was starting to turn his doubters into believers after leading the Broncos to the AFC West title in 1984. The Broncos would finish the season 11-5 and second in the division behind the LA Raiders, but they would miss the playoffs due to tiebreakers in a tough AFC.

From the very start, this game had a special feeling. Gary Anderson would return the opening kickoff 98-yards to give the Chargers a quick 7-0 lead before many of the fans were even situated. Before long the Chargers were back in Denver territory attempting a field goal. But the Bob Thomas kick was blocked by Dennis Smith on a play that would look familiar later in the game. The Chargers nearly scored again on their next possession when Anderson streaked by the Denver secondary but dropped a certain touchdown pass. On the very next play, Fouts would be picked off by Louis Wright which would finally spark the Denver offense. Elway got the Broncos on the board with a Steve Watson touchdown pass that tied the game at 7.

The Chargers got their first offensive points early in the 2nd quarter with a Fouts touchdown pass to Lionel James. The Broncos couldn’t stage a scoring threat the rest of the quarter, but their defense played well and kept them in the contest. Fouts got the Chargers into field goal range with less than a minute before halftime, but the 41-yard Thomas field goal attempt would bounce off the upright and the Chargers went into the locker room with a 14-7 lead.

The Broncos’ Vance Johnson took the opening 2nd half kickoff and returned it 95-yards in electrifying fashion for the score, but a holding penalty wiped off the touchdown and backed the Broncos up in their own territory. The defenses came up big in the third quarter, and the only scoring opportunity was a 28-yard field goal attempt by Rich Karlis. Naturally, in a game like this, Karlis hooked the kick and the 4th quarter would begin with the Chargers clinging to their 14-7 lead.

The Broncos finally managed to tie the score at 14 with a Gene Lang rushing touchdown early in the 4th quarter.  Fouts would fumble a snap on the Chargers ensuing drive and the Broncos got the ball back deep in Charger territory. Lang scored his 2nd rushing touchdown in less than a minute, and Denver was suddenly leading 21-14. The Chargers would answer with a Thomas field goal that pulled them to within 21-17. Elway would move the ball right back down the field, but the long Broncos drive ended with an interception. Late in the quarter, a Broncos punt from deep in their own end was blocked and the Chargers started in great field position with a little more than 2 minutes left to play. San Diego fullback Tim Spencer scored a rushing touchdown with a minute left and the Chargers sideline was delirious as they took a 24-21 lead. The TV broadcast showed the Chargers brass going crazy in their luxury box as they thought they had snuck one out in Mile High. But Elway took the Broncos right back down the field as usual, and a Karlis field goal tied the game at 24 with only 9 seconds left.

The Chargers would receive the opening kickoff in overtime, and Fouts easily led them down the field. They got deep into Denver territory and when an incomplete pass forced a 4th down, it looked like an easy field goal would give them the victory. However, a game full of wild special teams plays was going to get a few more. The Denver defense blocked the Thomas field goal attempt and Louis Wright scooped the ball and started going down the sideline. But the refs blew the play dead because Denver had called a timeout seconds before the ball was snapped. The announcers couldn’t believe that the Chargers were going to get another shot at the field goal. On the next try, Dennis Smith broke through the line and blocked his second kick of the day. The ball bounced straight to Louis Wright who snatched it on a full run and dashed 60-yards for the game winning touchdown. Mile High Stadium broke into pandemonium while the Charger players walked to the locker room in disbelief. A true moment of Mile High Magic! The Broncos pulled out the 30-24 victory without running a single offensive play in overtime thanks to the back-to-back blocked field goals.

Watch the wild final play and the chaos that ensued here.

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