John Elway to Vance Johnson: 44 yard completion with 59 seconds remaining in the game
After a down season the previous year in which the team missed the postseason, the Denver Broncos rebounded in the 1991 regular season, finishing with a 12-4 record and winning the AFC West title.
Finishing with the second-best record in the AFC earned Denver a coveted first-round bye in the postseason. The results from the Wild Card Round sent the AFC Central Division winner Houston Oilers to Mile High Stadium to face Denver. Houston finished the regular season with an 11-5 record and the third seed in the AFC.
“With our home field advantage at Mile High and our fans, we felt that there was no way that we could lose at home in the playoffs,” said Broncos wide receiver Vance Johnson. “That building was always electric.”
AFC Divisional Game
The Oilers were confident after their opening-round victory and future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon came out blazing against the sluggish Broncos. From the opening kickoff, Elway was trying to match Moon rocket for rocket, and for much of the game, Moon and Oilers had the advantage. Moon’s performance was as good as any as he threw three touchdown passes in his first three drives. The Oilers would head to the locker room up 21-6.
“As an offense, we were concerned going into that game because we knew what their offense could do,” said Johnson. “With Warren Moon at quarterback, and (Haywood) Jeffires, (Ernest) Givens and (Drew) Hill at receivers, we knew our defense would have a tough challenge.”
After halftime, the Broncos quickly closed the gap with a 1-yard touchdown run by running back Greg Lewis. The Broncos would then add a field goal later in the quarter to cut the Oilers' lead to 21-16. With momentum on Denver’s side, the defense was able to contain Moon for the entire second half. The lone points surrendered came early in the fourth quarter on a field goal that extended Houston’s lead to 24-16.
Denver would respond with an 80-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive that concluded with another 1-yard touchdown run by Lewis.
Following the touchdown and now trailing 24-23, Denver’s defense was able to force a stop, giving the Broncos offense one last chance. But Houston punter Greg Montgomery would not make life easy for Elway, angling his punt out of bounce at Denver’s 2-yard line.
“When you’re backed up that far, there’s always a sense of doubt,” said Johnson. “But when you have John Elway in your huddle, you always have a chance, regardless of the situation.”
With only 2:07 remaining and no timeouts, Denver’s offense would have to move quickly to try and give kicker David Treadwell a chance at the win.
From his own 2-yard line, Elway opened the final drive of the game in shotgun. Taking his drop nearly 9 yards deep in his own end zone, Elway would find receiver Michael Young for a 22-yard gain. The Broncos would only be able to gain 4 yards on the next three plays, leaving a fourth-and-6 from their own 28. From the shotgun, Elway took his drop and scanned the field for an open receiver. All of his options were well-covered and the Houston pass rush collapsed around him. Elway was able to elude one pass rusher, step up, and then outrun a slew of Oilers towards the Houston sideline for a 7-yard gain. The momentum of the fourth-down conversion quickly left as Elway threw three straight incompletions, setting up another critical fourth-down.
“Emotions can change quite a bit from play-to-play,” said Johnson. “We just converted one fourth down so to have another a few plays later, it crossed my mind that this could be the end of the our season.”
59 SECONDS IN REGULATION: Fourth-and-10 from Denver’s 35-yard line
Elway broke the huddle and walked to the line of scrimmage with his fingers held to his facemask and gesturing his hands up and down, imploring fans to stop the noise. The Broncos came out in a four-wide receiver set with Pro Bowl running back Gaston Green flanked to Elway’s left in the shotgun. In an effort to not concede a big pass play down field, Houston rushed only four and dropped its remaining seven players into pass coverage.
Elway took his seven-step drop and the pocket collapsed almost immediately. He was forced to step up in order to evade the fingers of Oiler defensive end William Fuller. Then, in typical Elway fashion, he made an extraordinarily athletic move by hurdling over defensive end Sean Jones, who was pushed to the ground during his pass rush. At this time, Elway saw no receivers open and was looking to run for the first down. Burned earlier in the drive by Elway’s running ability, Houston’s defensive backs broke from their designated zone coverage and charged the line of scrimmage, refusing to give up another first down scramble. By doing so, Elway was able to float a wobbly pass over the heads of the defenders to Vance Johnson, who was coming across the middle, 12 yards up the field.
“John threw the craziest duck on that pass,” said Johnson. “He never had great touch but this thing just wobbled out of his hand. I knew that my career would’ve been over if I would have dropped that pass.”
Johnson turned after he secured the catch and bolted down the sideline for a 44-yard gain and a first down at the Houston 21 with 50 seconds remaining.
“I knew I would have some open field so I just turned and ran as fast as I could,” said Johnson. "The adrenaline was there, and while I couldn’t hear the crowd in the moment, I remember seeing fans wave me down the field.”
The Broncos were well within field-goal range and after one rushing play up the middle, the kicking unit trotted out for the game-winning field goal with 20 seconds remaining. Once again, the special teams was far from flawless as the snap came in low from the center and the hold was bobbled. This time, holder Gary Kubiak was able to scoop the ball and lean it upright just enough for Treadwell to strike it. Luck was on the Broncos' side this time as the lopsided kick cleared the inside of the right upright and the Broncos defeated the Oilers 26-24.
“That was the biggest play in my career,” concluded Johnson.