Broncos Classic: 1997 Divisional Playoff – Denver @ Kansas City
On January 4th, 1998, the Denver Broncos Revenge Tour was well under way. The Broncos had walloped the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card playoffs a week earlier by a score of 42-17. That victory provided some retribution for the crushing playoff loss to the Jags in 1996 when Denver was the #1 seed in the AFC. As a reward for their wild card victory, Denver made a trip to Kansas City for the first ever playoff meeting between the longtime AFC West rivals. The Chiefs entered the game as the top seed in the AFC thanks to a last second victory over Denver in week 12. That loss forced Denver to enter the playoffs as a Wild Card team and it was the reason this game took place at Arrowhead Stadium rather than Mile High. But despite the fact that Denver was the #4 seed, they actually had the second best regular season record in the conference. That, coupled with the fact that Denver had the 1-2 punch of John Elway and Terrell Davis, gave the Broncos a lot of confidence heading into their biggest game of the year.
A huge storyline going into this game was Elway versus Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer. Schottenheimer had coached the Cleveland Browns during 2 of the 3 AFC Championship Game losses to Denver in the 1980’s. That stigma followed him when he moved on to coach the Chiefs as he continually lost to Elway and the Broncos in heartbreaking fashion. As it would turn out, this game would end up being another notch on Elway’s belt in his series with Marty.
The Broncos would take the ball first in what would turn out to be an intense defensive battle. The Chiefs crowd was in full force at the start of the game, but the Broncos responded to it well and moved into KC territory. The drive eventually stalled on the Chiefs 32-yard line and Mike Shanahan chose to punt it away rather than try the long field goal. The Chiefs went 3-and-out on their first series, and possession would go back and forth throughout the scoreless 1st quarter as the defenses made yards very difficult to come by.
Kansas City finally mounted a drive midway through the 2nd quarter but were forced to settle for a 34-yard field goal attempt. The kick was right down the middle, but a Chiefs holding penalty took the points off the board and Pete Stoyanovich had to try again from 44 yards. Naturally, his second attempt drilled the left upright and they came away with nothing.
The Broncos used the momentum from the missed field goal and started running the ball right down the Chiefs throat. A 26-yard pass from Elway to Dwayne Carswell set up the Broncos at the Chiefs 24-yard line. A big 3rd down conversion pass to Rod Smith gave Denver a first-and-goal with time winding down in the first half. Terrell Davis took over from there and eventually plunged into the endzone from 1 yard out to give the Broncos a 7-0 lead. It was the first rushing touchdown the Chiefs had allowed in Arrowhead since the 1996 season, and it energized the Denver sideline while silencing the crowd. Denver got the ball back before half, but after they moved into Kansas City territory Elway was sacked and he fumbled the ball away. The teams went into the locker room with Denver clinging to the 7-0 lead.
The Chiefs started the 2nd half with a big 34-yard pass play to Andre Rison that reinvigorated the crowd. Kansas City got it to the Denver 3-yard line, but a fade route to Tony Gonzales was caught out of bounds and they had to settle for a Stoyanovich field goal. Denver answered the field goal with a long drive of their own that included an amazing 41-yard run by Davis, but Derek Loville fumbled the ball away inside the Chiefs 10-yard line. 2 drives later, KC marched the ball down the field again and they scored on a 12-yard touchdown pass from Elvis Grbac to Tony Gonzales. The Chiefs now had all the momentum in the world to go along with their 10-7 lead. Denver got the ball back and managed to move it into Chiefs territory as the 3rd quarter clock ran out. As usual, Denver was going to need a 4th quarter comeback if they were going to move on to the AFC Championship Game.
On the second play of the final period, the Broncos got the play of the game. It was 3rd-down and 5 on the Chiefs 44-yard line, and Elway hit a wide open Ed McCaffrey on a crossing route. Easy Eddie turned it up the sideline and ran for a 43-yard gain before the Chiefs tackled him just short of the pylon. Terrell Davis got his second rushing touchdown of the game 3 plays later and the Broncos regained the lead 14-10.
The Chiefs got the ball back with about 12:30 to go in the game, and they used a couple of big plays to get right back into Denver territory. The drive eventually stalled out and Kansas City lined up for a 49-yard field goal. This was where Marty put his stamp on the game like only Marty can. In the cold and breezy weather conditions, every football fan in America said to their television sets, “watch for the fake”. So naturally Marty called a fake field goal. But not just any fake field goal. He had the holder of all people, Chiefs punter Louie Aguiar, run a long sweep to the right when they needed 6 yards for the first down. Denver was all over the play and the lumbering Aguiar never even got close to the first down marker.
The Broncos had two chances down the stretch to hold onto the ball and run out the clock, but they couldn’t get it done. Kansas City got possession on their own 16-yard line with just over 4 minutes left in the game when they started their last desperation drive. The Chiefs got a huge lift early when Denver was called for pass interference, and they later converted a 4th-and-9 with 3 minutes left in the game that got the ball to the Denver 41-yard line. Alfred Williams came up huge on the next play with a big sack of Elvis Grbac that let the clock bleed down to the 2-minute warning.
Since the Chiefs only had 1 timeout remaining, a Broncos defensive stop would secure the victory. Rison caught a big 22-yard pass on the next play and the Chiefs had a first down on the Denver 28-yard line. Kansas City used their last timeout with 1:51 to go, as classic Schottenheimer clock management took over. The Chiefs ran a screen on the next play that went nowhere and for some reason the ball carrier stayed in bounds. As the clock ticked away, Kansas City again completed a short pass where the receiver got tackled in bounds. A murmur started to spread throughout the crowd as the clock moved under 1 minute. On third down, Grbac was forced to scramble about 15 yards deep before he completed a third straight short pass to the right. Tight End Ted Popson turned towards the middle of the field and dived for the first down but came up short. That brought up 4th-down and 1 from the 20-yard line with about 45 seconds left and the clock ticking. Grbac and the rest of the Chiefs’ offense looked utterly confused but they had no timeouts available to regroup. Precious seconds bled off the clock as Grbac desperately looked around and tried to form some semblance of a play with his teammates. He finally called for the snap with 18 seconds left and threw a heave to the left corner of the endzone. It was broken up by Darrien Gordon and Steve Atwater as the Denver sideline erupted in a wild celebration!
The Broncos had come into Arrowhead Stadium and beaten the Chiefs in a classic football game. The look on Marty Schottenheimer’s face was pure shock. He just could not believe that Elway had gotten the better of him once again. Terrell Davis finished the game with 102-yards rushing and scored both Denver touchdowns. Elway threw for 170 yards, 56 of which went to McCaffrey, and Neil Smith and Alfred Williams each registered 2 sacks apiece. The victory was especially sweet for Smith who had left Kansas City to sign with Denver before the season started. Another interesting side note is that Denver lost the turnover battle 2-0. That is usually a killer in the playoffs, especially on the road, but they managed to overcome those mistakes and send the Arrowhead crowd home in stunned silence.
The Denver win propelled them to their first Super Bowl Championship just a few weeks later. The fact that the Chiefs were a stepping stone to the best moment in franchise history makes that Super Bowl run even sweeter. Denver also has the bragging rights from the biggest game ever played in the storied Broncos-Chiefs rivalry.
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