Denver Broncos: Which devastating playoff loss was the worst?

The Denver Broncos have one of the most storied traditions in all of the NFL, full of thrilling playoff wins and three Super Bowl victories. But there have been some crushing losses along the way.

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4 Jan 1997: Quarterback Mark Brunell of the Jacksonville Jaguars moves the ball during a playoff game against the Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. The Jaguars won the game, 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule /Allsport

For quite some time, the Broncos were a punchline to every Super Bowl blowout joke. John Elway's teams in the late 1980s reached the Super Bowl three times and were outmatched, outclassed and flat out embarrassed in all three.

It wasn't until the Buffalo Bills lost four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s that many of those jokes left Denver and arrived in western New York.

Later in his career, with a much better supporting cast, Elway was able to finally win it all, in fact, winning two Super Bowls in a row before retiring from the game. The Broncos then added another Super Bowl in 2015 in what would prove to be Peyton Manning's final game.

But here, we're going to throw out those Super Bowl defeats and focus on just two devastating playoff losses. Against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1996 and against the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.

Both of these losses share similarities and both of them stick in the craw of Broncos fans and will forever, despite the team reaching the top of the NFL mountain after each loss.

An argument can easily be made that without these two losses, the Broncos might have five Lombardi's sitting in their trophy room. Yet, deciding which of these losses stings more is quite difficult.

If you were to poll 100 Broncos fans on that question, you might get a 50-50 response.

Broncos roll to 13-3 record

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22 Sep 1996: Offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman of the Denver Broncos (right) blocks Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman John Browning during a game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. The Chiefs won the game, 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Stephen

The Broncos finished the 1995 season, Mike Shanahan's first as head coach, at 8-8, but concluded that season with a 31-28 victory over the Oakland Raiders on the road on Christmas Eve. That gave the team some momentum going into the next year.

The 1996 season was a special one. The team had Terrell Davis in his second year, an incredible find in the sixth round from the year before. That season, he ran for 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns, propelling an offense that also included Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe.

The defense had Steve Atwater, Bill Romanowski and first-round pick John Mobley.

The Broncos jumped out to a 3-0 start that season with wins over the New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In Week 4, they dropped a tough road game to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Following that loss, the Broncos rattled off nine straight victories, including a 34-7 thrashing of the Chiefs. The win streak ended with a loss to the Green Bay Packers and though they lost two of their last three games that year, they finished at 13-3 and won the AFC West by four games.

Everything was going so well for the Broncos. Davis was named the AP Offensive Player of the Year, reaching 1,000 yards rushing faster than any player in Broncos history. The team also had nine players selected to the Pro Bowl.

The Broncos would enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the AFC, having home-field advantage throughout.

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January 4, 1997

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Jacksonville Jaguars running back Natrone Means dives forward for additional yards during the Jaguars 30-27 victory over the Denver Broncos in the 1996 AFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 4, 1997, at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Allen Kee/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***

The Jaguars were in just their second year of existence in 1996 and despite a 4-12 record in their inaugural year, they finished 9-7 and got into the playoffs as a Wild Card. After outlasting the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round, they came to Mile High Stadium in the divisional round.

The Jaguars were 4-7 at one point that season before winning their last five games. In the season finale against the Atlanta Falcons, Morten Andersen, one of the best kickers in NFL history, missed a 30-yard chip shot to win the game. The Jaguars would have finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

That's how close this came to not happening.

The Broncos and their fans had no fear of this game. A team that was one year removed from being an expansion team coming to the Mile High City, where the Broncos were 8-0 that season? This had blowout written all over it.

Except it wasn't.

The Broncos got out to a 12-0 lead in the first quarter, scoring a touchdown on a fourth-down run by Vaughn Hebron early in the game. But when the extra point was blocked, the team decided to go for a two-point conversion after its second touchdown, one made by Shannon Sharpe, but that failed as well.

That seemed to wake Jacksonville up as the second quarter belonged to them.

Running back Natrone Means was instrumental in the Jaguars' offensive attack and made some big plays, including an 8-yard touchdown run in the quarter. That, paired with two field goals, gave the Jags a 13-12 halftime lead.

The Broncos were definitely still going to win though, thought fans everywhere.

But in the second half, timely plays to move the chains by Mark Brunell resulted in big touchdown passes, one to Keenan McCardell and one to Jimmy Smith. With just under four minutes to play in the game, the Jaguars had an improbably 30-20 lead.

Elway led his team down the field and threw a 15-yard strike to McCaffrey to shave the lead to three points, but with no timeouts remaining, all hope rested on the foot of Jason Elam and an onside kick attempt.

Elam tried to dribble it right up the middle but it landed in the waiting arms of Jacksonville's Le'Shai Maston. The Broncos came nowhere close to recovering the ball, and one of the greatest upsets in NFL history was complete.

Many Broncos fans to this day believe the team would have had a three-peat as Super Bowl champions if not for this game.

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Manning era starts strong, ends in disaster

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DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 30: Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos warms up prior to the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 30, 2012, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/Getty Images)

The 2012 season was a memorable one for the Broncos, as it was the first with Manning as the team's quarterback. Just seeing him take the field in orange and blue was a sight to behold.

The season got off to a strong start as the Broncos beat up on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener. But things took a drastic turn after that as the team dropped back-to-back games to the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans.

After a 37-6 win over the Raiders, they lost to the New England Patriots and were sitting at 2-3. But then, much like the 1996 season, the Broncos went on a huge winning streak, closing the season with 11 straight victories.

The Broncos appeared to be a machine entering the playoffs. They won the AFC West by six games and entered the playoffs as the No.1 overall seed, just like in 1996.

Manning finished the season with 4,659 yards passing and 37 touchdowns, proving that the neck injury some never thought he would come back from was nothing more than an afterthought. He was possibly the league's best player that year and the Broncos appeared to be far and away the best team.

They would have a first-round bye and would watch the Baltimore Ravens defeat the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card round. That result sent the Ravens to Invesco Field in Denver.

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January 12, 2013

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DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12: Jacoby Jones #12 of the Baltimore Ravens catches a 70-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against Rahim Moore #26 of the Denver Broncos during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 12, 2013, in Denver, Colorado. The Ravens won 38-35 in the second overtime. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Much like the game against the Jaguars 16 years prior, the result of this game seemed to be in the bag before it even started. But as Chris Berman used to say, "that's why they play the games".

During the Broncos' 11-game winning streak that season, about a month before this game took place, the Broncos went into M&T Bank Stadium and handled the Ravens pretty easily in a 34-17 victory.

Why would this game, in Denver, be any different?

When Trindon Holliday returned a punt 90 yards for a touchdown, the first punt return for a touchdown in Broncos playoff history, it didn't seem like it would. But on the next possession, Joe Flacco hit Torrey Smith with a 59-yard touchdown pass and the Ravens struck again when Corey Graham intercepted a pass off a deflection and returned it 39 yards for a score.

The Broncos were down 14-7, but there was no way they were losing this game, right?

Manning went right down the field on the next possession before finding Brandon Stokley for a game-tying touchdown. The teams then traded touchdown passes and the score was tied at 21 at halftime.

To start the second half, Holliday returned the opening kickoff 104 yards for a score, becoming the first player in NFL history to return a punt and kickoff for a touchdown in a playoff game. It seemed sure that the team would soon deliver a knockout blow to Baltimore, but the Ravens would not go away.

The Broncos had a 35-28 lead late in the fourth quarter and forced the Ravens to turn the ball over on downs with just over three minutes left in the game. That should have been the end of it, but the Ravens were able to force a Denver punt with just over one minute to play.

This is where the name Rahim Moore comes into play and goes down in Broncos history for all the wrong reasons.

Holding a 7-point lead, one of the most unbelievable plays (video) in the history of the league took place. With just 42 seconds left on the clock, Moore allowed a pass to go over his head and it was caught by Jacoby Jones to tie the game.

Though this game would go into two overtimes, Denver's heart had been ripped out. That was evidenced by the fact that with Manning as his quarterback and two timeouts in his pocket, head coach John Fox opted to take a knee and be satisfied going to overtime.

In the second overtime, another interception by Graham would set up Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal and the Ravens pulled off one of the craziest wins in NFL history.

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Which loss was worse?

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DENVER, CO - JANUARY 12: Corey Graham #24 of the Baltimore Ravens intercepts a pass by Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos which Graham returned for a 39-yard touchdown in the first quarter during the AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on January 12, 2013, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Both of these losses were tough, difficult to swallow defeats. There is no way around that. Aside from the losses in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers and later, Seattle Seahawks, these are arguably the worst losses in Broncos history.

But if you had to decide between the two, which was worse?

Both losses happened when the Broncos had 13-3 regular-season records. Both losses came when the Broncos were the No.1 seed in the playoffs and both losses happened in Denver. Both times, the Broncos were massive favorites.

It comes down to how you view things.

In 1996, the Broncos were a Super Bowl favorite with a legendary quarterback. The Jaguars were in their second season of existence. The Broncos had a two-touchdown lead in that game and gave it up.

It's a bad loss and if you were to pick that one, you wouldn't be wrong.

If I am going to make a pick, I am going to pick the Baltimore loss simply because of the way it ended. There is just no way that the touchdown to Jones should have happened.

In the Jacksonville loss, you had Brunell made some big plays to put his team on his back and pull off the improbable win. In the Baltimore loss, it really came down to a fluke play.

Sure, the Broncos let the Ravens hang around in that game all day. But the 70-yard pass from Flacco to Jones, if that play were to run 100 times, it would not happen the way it did again.

On top of that, the Ravens went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Jacksonville was defeated in the AFC Championship Game.

That made the pill even tougher to swallow.

It's close as both losses were equally heartbreaking. As stated before, if you asked 100 different Broncos fans, you might get a split right down the middle. For some, it might come down to the game they saw in person or the game that they remember watching live. While for others, who watched both games as they happened, it will come down to just one excruciating detail.

Like a pass sailing over a safety's head and outstretched hand when there was only a three-man rush on.