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Sacco Sez: How the 1997 Broncos broke through in Super Bowl XXXII

Posted Feb 2, 2018

In an article that he wrote for the Super Bowl LII game program, Jim Saccomano recalls how the Broncos won their first Super Bowl after losing four before it.

The Denver Broncos are one of nine teams to have won three or more Super Bowls, but it was an upset win in Super Bowl XXXII 20 years ago that first elevated them to championship status.

Going into that game against the defending-champion Green Bay Packers, the Denver franchise was 0-4 in Super Bowls and many Bronco fans were wary of the embarrassment that might come with another loss in the big game.

But that was a different Broncos team, one that exorcised all those demons and broke a streak of AFC Super Bowl defeats that had reached 13 straight, including three previous losses by Denver.

In each of those previous three losses during the NFC dominance, Denver was regarded by many as a one-man team, that one man of course being quarterback John Elway.

But under head coach Mike Shanahan, the Broncos brought a dramatically rebuilt team into San Diego for Super Bowl XXXII.

The Broncos offense included four future members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the highest number on any offense from 1997 to the present.  That group included Elway, tight end Shannon Sharpe, left tackle Gary Zimmerman and the ultimate Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXII, running back Terrell Davis.

Denver came into the game as a wild-card team and 11-point underdogs, but there was a very high level of confidence within the team.

As starting strong safety Tyrone Braxton explains, “For us, it was all about the journey. We had won playoff games at Kansas City and the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh, so after that, playing Green Bay on an AFC West neutral field that we played on every year did not seem like as large a problem. We looked forward to it.”    

Elway had waited 15 years for that moment, but he was not alone on a team that had been built for that very day.

Denver’s starting lineup included eight draftees, two players acquired by trade (one of whom was Elway), 10 free agent players and two who had never been drafted at all.

Shanahan had set the Super Bowl as a goal from the first day of training camp, and the Broncos were where they had expected to be. No one could have known that the Broncos were in the midst of a winning streak that would not see them lose for a calendar year.

The stars all aligned for Denver in the California sky in a stadium that was very Broncos friendly, as members of the AFC West, Denver played at San Diego every year, often with great success. Shanahan pointed out, “Lots of our fans always travel to San Diego. And this is the Super Bowl, so half the crowd will be cheering for us.”

Indeed, as the game played out, it became apparent that there was great support for Denver and Elway.

Both offenses displayed their talent immediately as Super Bowl XXXII became the first ever in which each team scored a touchdown on its opening possession. The Packers struck first when Brett Favre connected with Antonio Freeman on a 22-yard scoring pass, and the Broncos answered by driving 58 yards in 10 plays the first time they touched the ball, scoring on a 1-yard Davis run with 5:58 left in the first quarter.

The Broncos turned two Packers turnovers into 10 more points to take a 17-7 lead into the second quarter. 

The first scoring opportunity off a turnover was created when Braxton intercepted a Favre pass. Eight plays later, Elway rushed around right end for a 1-yard score. Then free safety Steve Atwater, who had a brilliant game, sacked Favre on the next Green Bay possession, forcing a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Neil Smith. Four plays later, Jason Elam converted a 51-yard field goal, the second longest in Super Bowl history.

But with Elway’s command and Denver’s running game in control, the most critical moment for the underdogs came in the second quarter.

Davis suffered from exertional migraines throughout his career, and he had what is medically described as the onset aura of one early in the second quarter. Symptoms include difficulty seeing and a headache, and the only solution was to put him alone in a dark room and apply appropriate migraine medicines. The Broncos followed that procedure, and then-Head Athletic Trainer Steve Antonopulos said, “Thank God for the long halftime.”

It passed by the start of the third quarter and San Diego native Terrell Davis was on his way to becoming the first player ever to win Super Bowl MVP honors in his hometown.

The Packers had scored just before the half and tied the game early in the third quarter on a 27-yard Ryan Longwell field goal.

Late in the third quarter, the game was still tied and Elway was leading the Broncos downfield again.  Inside the Green Bay 10, Elway scrambled for a key first down and was flipped and spun airborne in a circle parallel to the ground, a play known in Broncos lore as “the helicopter” play. 

The stadium erupted when Elway made the first down and stood up, and from that point on the already raucous crowd cheered loudly for the Broncos. Momentum had chosen its team and Davis capped the drive with another 1-yard score.

After a Denver interception, Green Bay moved 85 yards in just four plays to tie the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter.

But after the Denver defense turned back the Packers on their next two possessions, the Broncos set up shop at the Packers 49-yard line for their game-winning drive. Elway, of course, was famous for his late-game heroics, so everyone on the Broncos' sideline could see this one coming.

Five plays later, Davis scored again from 1 yard out, becoming the first player ever to rush for three touchdowns in a Super Bowl, breaking the tie with 1:45 left to play.

He had run for 157 yards on 30 carries, capping one of the greatest postseasons ever for a running back, and he headed to a euphoric Broncos sideline with playoff totals of 581 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, both records for a single postseason.

His three touchdowns and 18 points scored tied Super Bowl records.

Denver’s defense, which had been brilliant all day against the great Packers quarterback, stopped him and Green Bay one last time, with linebacker John Mobley knocking down a fourth-down pass to secure the win.

All that was left was every coach’s favorite play — taking a knee in victory formation. Elway knelt down and all of Denver figuratively stood up to dance in the streets. 

Elway, who would go on to win Super Bowl MVP honors himself the following year, said, “We were very confident going in, and there was an unbelievable feeling of satisfaction to bringing that title to our great organization, fans and to owner Pat Bowlen. That win showed the resilience and determination of our entire team.”

Denver ran the ball so well that it not only controlled the game offensively but limited Green Bay’s ability to use their extensive blitz packages against Elway. Coaches love dominating with the run, and after the game Shanahan told a horde of media members, “We won it with the running game, and that is most pleasing.”

The Broncos had vanquished the 13-year NFC curse and every demon in franchise history in winning the first of their three Lombardi Trophies. They also became just the third team to win a Super Bowl without winning a division title (the first two were Kansas City in Super Bowl IV and Oakland in Super Bowl XV).

Denver would go on to put four members of that offense into the Hall of Fame and be regarded as one of the most consistent annual championship contenders in the NFL.

But in living for the moment, there have been few Broncos moments as great as winning Super Bowl XXXII, which is celebrated both forever, and twenty years ago this week.

This article also appears in the Super Bowl LII game program. It is available for purchase at NFLShop.com.