Note: This is an excerpt from Andrew Mason's book Tales from the Denver Broncos Sideline, available in hardback or download from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, iBooks and in print from booksellers throughout Colorado.
In the fourth quarter of the 1986 AFC Championship, a game with pendulum swings of momentum finally appeared to be locked in the direction of the homestanding Cleveland Browns. They had scored 10 consecutive points, taking a 20-13 lead on a 48-yard pass from Bernie Kosar to Brian Brennan. The Broncos had gone three-and-out on their previous two series.
Despite all that, Broncos history was about to be made. But before that could happen, their situation got worse.
As often happens, it took a bizarre set of circumstances to create a moment for the ages. A shanked 49-yard kickoff by Cleveland’s Mark Moseley that hit the ground at the Denver 16-yard line in front of returner Ken Bell. A bad bounce that sent the ball careening to Bell’s right and past him, dribbling inside the 5-yard line before he could corral it. And finally, the ball squirting through Bell’s hands as he tried to lean down to field it, leaving him to fall on the football inside the Denver 2-yard line.
Ninety-eight yards to go. Five minutes and 34 seconds remaining.
In the Broncos’ huddle, tension grew along with the noise from 79,915 fans yelling, barking and brandishing Milk-Bones in honor of their beloved “Dawg Pound” defense. At that point, left guard Keith Bishop spoke up.
“We have them right where we want them,” he said.
“I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’" right tackle Dave Studdard recalled to The Denver Post in 2012.
But what Bishop said was exactly what the Broncos needed: a little bit of deadpan, but with some honest truth behind it. More than five minutes remained in the game; there was plenty of time. And without the confidence to believe the job could be done, how could the Broncos be successful?
“Honestly, I felt like we had a chance. Anytime you have a John Elway as your quarterback, you have a chance,” then-head coach Dan Reeves said. “I could see the determination in his eyes.”
Added wide receiver Steve Watson to Sports Illustrated: “In the huddle after that kickoff to the 2(-yard line) he [John Elway] smiled -- I couldn't believe it -- and he said, 'If you work hard, good things are going to happen.’ And then he smiled again."
The first step was the smallest: get out of the shadow of the uprights. With the ball at the 2-yard line, even a holding penalty could have ended the game, since it would have been in the end zone, resulting in a safety. One play saw the first mission accomplished, as Elway found Sammy Winder on a five-yard swing pass. Two more carries by Winder moved the ball to the Denver 12 and moved the chains.
The Broncos had downs, and breathing room. Now, they could finally begin running their offense. After another Winder gain of 3 yards, Elway began gaining yards in clumps: 11 yards on a scramble, 22 yards on a pass to Steve Sewell, 12 yards on a toss to Watson. The Broncos were in Cleveland territory at the Cleveland 40-yard line, and their still-raucous fans began squirming at the two-minute warning.
Then, the Browns rallied. An incompletion, a sack by Dave Puzzoli, and the Broncos were back in desperate straits again: at the Cleveland 48, facing third-and-18. The despair heightened for a split second at the shotgun snap, which bounced off Watson, in motion to the right side. But the ball bounced off him and fluttered to Elway, who leaned forward to catch the football.
After that, the play proceeded exactly as it was drawn. Elway stepped back and had plenty of time; the Browns had only rushed three defenders, and Denver’s offensive line easily kept the pocket pristine.
That was the last third-and-long the Broncos saw. An incompletion was followed by a 14-yard screen pass to Sewell. Another incompletion preceded a 9-yard Elway scramble, setting up third-and-1 at the Cleveland 5-yard line with 39 seconds remaining. From there, Elway took the snap, dropped back to the 16-yard line and found Jackson on a slant route for the touchdown that, along with Rich Karlis’ extra point, forced overtime.
“When our backs are closest to the wall is when we really play our best—and we couldn’t get any closer to the wall,” Elway said after the game.
“The day before a big game, you dream of doing things like that.”
The dream came true in a nightmarish set of circumstances. A hostile crowd throwing dog biscuits. Frigid temperatures and a wind blowing from Lake Erie. A field that was grass in name only; by mid-January in northeast Ohio, it was scarcely more than painted dirt.
But it would take another possession for “The Drive” to become legend, and not a footnote.
THE NEXT DRIVE, THEN THE KICK
The Broncos lost the coin toss to begin the sudden-death period by calling heads. But with the Browns in third-and-2, Karl Mecklenburg fought through the block of Cleveland guard Dan Fike to obstruct Herman Fontenot on a carry to the right side. Rulon Jones closed from the back side, and the Broncos had forced the three-and-out that nullified the coin toss.
He fired one of his customary bullets. Watson leapt and snatched the pass. Safety Felix Wright arrived a split-second too late to prevent the 28-yard gain to the Cleveland 22.
"That was vintage Elway," Watson said after the game. “Not many quarterbacks would have had the composure to see my man (Cleveland cornerback Hanford Dixon) had left me. But he did, and that’s why he’s such a great quarterback.”
Three handoffs to Winder followed, advancing the Broncos to the Cleveland 15.
"Just like practice. Just like practice," teammates told Karlis as he walked onto the field, cleat on his left foot, his right foot bare to the elements—for the biggest kick in Broncos history.
“I tried to remember that when I went out there. It was just like one of those Fridays when we practice our game-winners,” he said after the game.
But when the ball soared toward the left goalpost, Karlis did not know if it was inside the uprights. It sailed high of the goalposts, leaving a judgment call for field judge Johnny Grier.
“I wasn’t sure if I had made it at first,” Karlis said in the locker room. “I couldn’t have made it by more than a foot.”
In Cleveland, fans will still lament that the football actually sailed wide left. But the man with the best view was Grier, who later went on to become a referee heading up an officiating crew for 17 seasons. He pointed his arms toward the gray sky, and Karlis, holder Gary Kubiak and their teammates jumped for joy. The image of their celebration was captured for posterity on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Instant replay, which was in its first year of its initial form, could not overturn the call. Denver was Super Bowl-bound for the first time in nine years.
“When you make ‘em like that, it only makes it more exciting,” Karlis said.