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Top Playoff Moments: The Fumble

Posted Jan 8, 2014

A look back at one of the top moments in Broncos playoff history. Today’s moment: 1987 AFC Championship Game – The Fumble.

Denver Broncos vs. Cleveland Browns
1987 AFC Championship Game
Sunday, January 17, 1988
Mile High Stadium, Denver, Colo.

Jeremiah Castille forces and recovers fumble at the Broncos 2-yard line with 1:05 remaining in the game

Led by quarterback John Elway, the Denver Broncos finished the 1987 regular season with a 10-4-1 record, becoming the only team in the NFL to post eight 10-win seasons since 1977. Denver repeated as AFC West champions and earned the top seed in the AFC. Elway was voted as the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.

The Broncos got off to a fast start in the playoffs by dismantling the Houston Oilers 34-10 in the AFC Divisional Round at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos defense stifled the Oilers offense all day long with cornerback Mike Haynes and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg leading the way.

AFC Championship Game

The Denver Broncos found themselves in the AFC Championship game for the second straight year. However, the number two seeded Cleveland Browns stood directly in Denver’s path of consecutive AFC Championships. The Browns finished the season with a record of 10-5 and were seeking revenge for the heartbreaking playoff loss suffered the year before.

“Old Mile High was rocking that day,” Broncos defensive back Tyrone Braxton said. “It was loud and noisy the entire day, and the perfect atmosphere for an NFL playoff game. I was just a rookie, but I could tell by the crowd that this was something special.”

The Broncos came out firing and surged to an early lead and led the Browns 21-3 at halftime. But the pending blowout wouldn't stand. Bernie Kosar rallied the Browns, tossing four second-half touchdowns and tying the game at 31-31.

“In the second half, the Browns really had us on our heels,” said Braxton. “They just kept scoring and scoring, but we knew we could win the game if someone could just make a play.”

With 5:14 remaining, it took another Elway-engineered drive to put the Broncos out in front. This time, he led a 75-yard march that ended with a dump off screen pass to Sammy Winder, who ran 20 yards for a touchdown.

With 3:53 remaining and with starting field position at their own 25, the Browns weren’t ready to surrender. Kosar did his best late-game Elway impression and marched the Cleveland offense deep into Denver territory.

“As Cleveland got closer and closer to our end zone, we just kept telling each other in the huddle to make a play,” Braxton said. “Even though they were moving the ball, we all were focused and confident that someone was going to make a play.”

Visions of Elway’s heroics in the previous year’s AFC title game crept into the minds of Broncos fans. This time, the roles were reversed as Kosar and the Browns picked at the Broncos defense and advanced all the way to Denver’s 8-yard line.

1:12 REMAINING IN REGULATION: Browns first-and-goal from Broncos 8-yard line

Facing second-and-5 from the 8-yard line and still trailing by seven, the Browns lined up in a single-back formation with four receivers. Lining up in a pass-heavy formation effectively spread the Broncos defense out, and Head Coach Dan Reeves was forced to counter with extra defensive backs. After giving the Broncos defense a long look at the line of scrimmage, Kosar audibled out of the team’s pass play and into a more advantageous run play to attack the smaller defenders.

Kosar took the snap from center and handed off to running back Earnest Byner, who bounced the ball out left behind pulling guard Dan Fike. The 6-foot-7 Fike cleared two Broncos defenders and left a big hole for Byner, who barreled towards the end zone. Only one last defender stood in his way, Broncos backup cornerback Jeremiah Castille. It was one-on-one between the 175-pound Castille and the much-larger Byner. Castille lunged with his left arm, solely in an effort to strip the football. Castille was able to strip the ball out of Byner's grasp at the Broncos 2-yard line. As the ball bounced around near the Broncos goal line, Castille finished the play by recovering the fumble, ending Cleveland’s Super Bowl hopes.

“On that play, I was playing safety on the right side of the offensive formation,” Braxton said. “The running play ran away from me so I just tried to pursue because you never know what can happen. I was just a few steps away when Jeremiah jumped on the ball… it was true elation.”

Denver took a late, intentional safety before time ran out and the Broncos defeated the Browns 38-33.

Castille made a tremendous individual effort on the play, one that effectively sealed the game for the Broncos and propelled them to Super Bowl XXII. With this victory, Denver became the first AFC team to win consecutive conference championships since 1978-1979.