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Top Playoff Moments: The Drive

Posted Jan 6, 2014

A look back at one of the top moments in Broncos playoff history. Today’s moment: 1986 AFC Championship Game – Elway to Jackson.

Denver Broncos at Cleveland Browns

1986 AFC Championship

Sunday, January 11, 1987
Cleveland, Ohio

John Elway to Mark Jackson: 20-yard completion with 1:47 remaining in the game

The Denver Broncos finished the 1986 regular season with an 11-5 record and the number two seed in the AFC. Led by fourth-year quarterback John Elway, the Broncos earned their fourth AFC West title in team history.

In the AFC Divisional Round, the Broncos defeated the New England Patriots 22-17 at Mile High Stadium and earned their first playoff victory since 1977. In the victory, running back Sammy Winder rushed for 102 yards and defensive lineman Rulon Jones sacked Patriots quarterback Tony Eason in the end zone with 1:37 remaining to seal the victory.


The following week, Denver would travel to Cleveland to play in their first title game in nine years. In front of nearly 80,000 fans and in below-freezing conditions, the Broncos would take on the No. 1 seed Cleveland Browns, who finished with a 12-4 regular-season record.

“I started my game day warmup as I always did with a couple of laps around the field before the specialists came out to practice,” said Broncos wide receiver Mark Jackson. “I noticed during my first lap that fans were already in the stadium and throwing doggie biscuits on the field. During my second lap, they started throwing them at me. More and more people joined in and it just became a barrage of doggie biscuits. That just set the tempo for the day."

5:43 REMAINING IN REGULATION: Browns 20, Broncos 13

Trailing 20-13 with 5:43 remaining in the fourth quarter, Broncos returner Ken Bell fumbled the kickoff and Denver was forced to start on its own 2-yard line. Heading towards the crazed Cleveland Browns Dog Pound and with wintery winds whipping in gusts of 15 miles per hour, Elway began to engineer one of the most iconic drives in NFL history that would forever be known as “The Drive."

“We had so many drives and so many comebacks throughout the year, we didn’t have any doubt that we could score,” Jackson said. “We had plenty of time, but I was a rookie and maybe a little naive.”
Elway quickly guided the offense out of the shadow of its own endzone with a completion to Winder and four straight runs. After back-to-back completions to Steve Sewell and Steve Watson, the Broncos entered Browns territory and effectively took the air out of Cleveland Stadium. However, disaster struck late in the drive that threatened to end Denver’s season.

After an incompletion on first down and an 8-yard sack on second down, the Broncos were left with an improbable third-and-18 from the Browns 48-yard line.

“After the sack, I was hoping for the play they ended up calling,” Jackson said. “The play called for Vance Johnson to clear out the safety and I would cross underneath. We’d had success with that play earlier in the season so we were looking to pick up the entire 18 (yards) on that play.”


Standing in shotgun and with running back Gerald Willhite standing to his right, Elway motioned Watson across the formation from left to right.

“They were playing zone coverage and we sent Steve Watson in motion to try and determine if they would stay in zone or go man-to-man,” Jackson said.

As Watson passed behind center Billy Bryan, the snap came unexpectedly and ricocheted off of Watson’s left thigh. With the entire right side of his uniform covered in mud, Elway was able to field the misdirected snap and took his drop to the Broncos 40-yard line. With great protection, Elway stepped up into the pocket, planted his right foot at the Broncos 41-yard line and fired a strike to Mark Jackson 20 yards down the field. Jackson had beaten Browns cornerback Hanford Dixon on a 20-yard in-route and set up the Broncos with first-and-10 at the Cleveland 27.

“When the ball was snapped, I just took off, came out of my break, found a hole and John got me the ball,” Jackson said.  “The guy who tackled me was Vance’s guy and he should have still been covering Vance. I made my guy miss and should have had a clear path to the end zone.”
Elway and the Broncos never looked back after that play and the drive was capped off with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Elway to Jackson. Deadlocked at 20-20, the game went into overtime. 

The Browns won the coin toss and elected to receive, but the momentum was on Denver’s side and the defense forced a Cleveland punt after a quick three-and-out. Key completions to tight end Orson Mobley and Watson triggered Denver’s 60-yard drive, which concluded with a Rich Karlis 33-yard, game-winning field goal. 

“The third-and-18 is just as significant, and maybe more so, than the touchdown catch that ended the drive,” Jackson said. “For me, it was an awesome opportunity.”

- Jon Davis

Click here for video highlights of the 1986 AFC Championship Game