Denver Broncos vs. Pittsburgh Steelers
1977 AFC Divisional Playoff Game
Sunday, December 24, 1977
Mile High Stadium, Denver, Colo.
Tom Jackson’s Second Interception: 1:57 remaining in the 4th Quarter
The Denver Broncos finished the 1977 regular season with a 12-2 record, earning their first ever trip to the postseason. Led by the vaunted Orange Crush defense, which surrendered less than 11 points per game, the Broncos earned the number one seed in the AFC playoffs.
Playing in their first playoff game in the team’s 18 year history, the Broncos welcomed the AFC Central champion Pittsburgh Steelers, a team who had won two of the previous three Super Bowl titles.
“I remember the fans being wild that day,” Broncos safety Billy Thompson recalled. “The home crowd was always great at Mile High, but it was even more exciting being our first ever playoff game."
AFC DIVISIONAL GAME
In front of 75,011 fans at Mile High Stadium, the Broncos and Steelers would go back and forth during the first three quarters of play. After ties at 7, 14 and 21, the Broncos would take a fourth-quarter lead after a 44-yard field goal by kicker Jim Turner with 7:43 remaining in the game.
“The Steelers were the top team in the '70s and we knew we had a big challenge ahead of us going against that offense with Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Franco Harris,” Thompson said.
The next Steelers possession would end with a turnover with Broncos linebacker Tom Jackson intercepting Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw on a second-and-10 throw. Jackson’s return of 32 yards would set up Denver with a first-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 9-yard line. Turner would add his second field goal of the quarter to give Denver a 27-21 lead with 5:04 remaining.
5:04 REMAINING IN REGULATION: Broncos 27, Steelers 21
Up six and with just over 5:00 to play, the Broncos defense, led by future Ring of Famers Randy Gradishar, Billy Thompson, Louis Wright and Jackson, found themselves one defensive stand away from the first playoff victory in team history.
“Our offense didn’t score a lot of points in 1977, so as a defense, we always felt the pressure to shut down opposing offenses,” Thompson said. “We’d already given up 21 at that point, which was way above our regular-season average, so we knew we had to make a play to get off the field.”
The Steelers' drive would start on their own 20-yard line and would begin with a pass play to running back Franco Harris for a 2-yard loss. After an incompletion to tight end Bennie Cunningham on second-and-12, Bradshaw would go back to Cunningham on third down for a 12-yard completion and a Steelers first down. The Steelers would earn another first down on a completion to Rocky Bleier and would be set up at the Pittsburgh 41 just before the two-minute warning.
2:07 REMAINING IN REGULATION: Broncos, 27, Steelers 21
Approaching mid-field and needing a touchdown to take the lead, the Steelers would look to the air on a first-and-10 play from their own 41-yard line. Bradshaw took the snap and his seven-step drop and quickly scanned the secondary. With Broncos defensive tackle Paul Smith quickly putting pressure up the middle, Bradshaw looked right and fired a pass intended for future Hall of Famer Lynn Swann running across the field.
Jackson fell back in coverage from his linebacker position and dropped directly in between Bradshaw and his intended target. At the 50-yard line, Jackson intercepted the first-down pass and quickly turned up field. Jackson would race 17 yards before being tackled by a trio of Steelers, setting up the Broncos at the Steelers 33.
“Tommy and I were roommates and he and I would always talk about making the big play every night before a game,” Thompson said.
Jackson’s second interception of the game would be the end of Pittsburgh’s 1977 season, as quarterback Craig Morton would hit receiver Jack Dolbin for a 34-yard touchdown two plays later. The Broncos would go on to win 34-21, earning their first playoff victory. The Broncos would defeat the Oakland Raiders the following week 20-17 in the AFC Championship.
“Nobody outside of Denver thought we could win that game,” Thompson said. “We knew we had the better team and I was proud of the way we played that day.”