In honor of the 25th anniversary of the first world-championship season, we're spending the week at DenverBroncos.com reliving the season-long run to Super Bowl XXXII.
Through interviews with Hall of Famer Steve Atwater and Ring of Famers Mike Shanahan and Rod Smith, we've recreated one of the most memorable seasons in Broncos history.
Over the course of this four-part series, we'll remember the triumphs — and the challenges — of a long-awaited title.
PART 1: RISING FROM DEFEAT
It took three days before Rod Smith could get up off his couch.
In the wake of Denver's 1996 Divisional Round loss to the Jaguars, Smith was numb.
The Broncos entered the game as double-digit favorites following a 13-3 regular season, and they appeared to be headed for their first AFC Championship Game since the 1991 season. Before the game, The Denver Post ran a now infamous column, asking for a "legitimate" opponent for the Broncos and suggesting the game would be known as "The Blowout."
The game would be remembered for far different reasons.
At the end of the first quarter, the Broncos led 12-0, and they'd run for 88 yards as they dominated time of possession. The Jaguars, meanwhile, went three-and-out on their first three possessions of the first quarter, and the Broncos appeared in complete control.
"We actually were dominating the game, and then Jacksonville really started running the football and started usIng their play-actions well," former head coach Mike Shanahan said in a recent interview. "I think the next three quarters they averaged 11 runs a quarter for the next three quarters. So you go back to the second, third and fourth quarter, they really became a balanced team. They beat us, obviously, 30-27 in a very close game, but they actually kind of used our type of game plan that we used throughout the whole season, with a good running game mixed with a play-action game, and they came back and beat us at our own game."
The Jaguars used a 23-0 scoring run to build an 11-point fourth-quarter lead, and the Broncos' defense couldn't get a stop late when a Terrell Davis rushing touchdown cut the lead to 23-20 with less than eight minutes to play. On the drive that essentially iced the game, the Jaguars ran on seven consecutive snaps and pushed the ball inside the Denver 20-yard line. A 16-yard touchdown pass from Mark Brunell to Jimmy Smith pushed the lead back to 10 points. The Broncos would again cut the lead to the three with less than two minutes to play, but Denver could not recover the onside kick.
The game was over.
"Jaguars Stun Broncos, and Just About Everyone," declared a New York Times headline.
"We ran into a team that just played a perfect football game," John Elway said after the game. "We had a good year. To have it end like this is disappointing, but the sun will come up and we'll go from there. It's going to hurt for a while."
Rather than move forward in the playoffs, the Broncos were left with an inexplicable loss and the pain that came with it.
"We were 13-3, we had all the confidence in the world and we thought, 'This is going to be the year,'" said Steve Atwater, who missed part of the game with an injury. "But it turns out it wasn't, and the Jacksonville game was the reason for it. ... They outplayed us at our own stadium. It's no excuse, it shouldn't have happened, but we obviously did some stuff that hurt ourselves as well. But that game hurt, man. It hurt. It felt like we were going, and then all of a sudden, no you're not."
Ahead of their run to Super Bowl XXXII, the Broncos had a memorable 1997 regular season. Look back through the season with these photos from the Broncos' photo archive and the Associated Press.
There was no screaming in the locker room after the game. Atwater recalled that Shanahan wasn't super angry.
There was just disappointment.
"You know what? I can't even remember," Smith said of the postgame locker room. "I was numb. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, I'll tell you what happened after that. I was so shocked at what happened — we did go through all the preliminary stuff, Mike said some stuff — I can't remember one word he said because I was still numb and upset, frustrated, mad at myself, thinking, 'What could I have done?'"
Smith headed home, took a shower, pulled on a bathrobe and sat down on his couch. He doesn't remember moving for the next three days.
"I don't remember going to the bathroom, I don't remember doing nothing," Smith said. "This is the crazy part: My son comes up on the third day, and he said, 'Hey dad, I want to go to the next game,' and I started laughing. It literally broke me out of a trance. I started laughing, I said, 'Bud, it's going to be a while.' And I literally got back up after that, and the next week I started back working out again for the next season."
The Broncos did not shy away from the loss over the upcoming offseason. Shahanan said he didn't shy away from referencing the loss, and he'd later note its importance in leading to a Super Bowl XXXII — and Super Bowl XXXIII — win.
"To lose that game was pretty tough, but you go back, and it might be one of the reasons why we won two Super Bowls the next couple years, because we used that as motivation," Shanahan said.
Atwater was among the players to let the defeat fuel him through the spring and summer months.
"It was hard not to let it fuel me during the offseason, man, although I think I do a pretty good job of putting stuff behind me," Atwater said. "It stuck with me, man, also because I had a thigh bruise [in the game]. I think some people on the team thought I was faking. I'm like, 'The hell am I going to fake for?' I'd never fake an injury. I couldn't run, my ... leg was bruised up. So I think that added a little more to it, just the fact that I know I wasn't in there. I don't know if I would've made a difference anyway, but that disappointed me.
"We were just looking forward to our next opportunity, because we knew we had a great team. Again, we were 13-3 during the regular season, and then we knew we had all those guys coming back. We added some more pieces to the puzzle."
Denver indeed received an influx of talent that offseason, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The Broncos signed five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Neil Smith, former first-round cornerback Darrien Gordon and a future 16-game starter in defensive lineman Keith Traylor, and they drafted future All-Pro Trevor Pryce in the first round. Denver also signed fullback Howard Griffith, who would help pave the way for Terrell Davis throughout the season.
With the veteran additions, Atwater knew Shanahan and the Broncos were determined to get over the hump and chase a championship.
"I remember I saw Darrien Gordon [in the weight room], [and] I was like, 'Man, we're trying to win it all,'" Atwater said. "Because Darrien Gordon, he was a great corner for San Diego prior to him coming here, and I always had a lot of respect for his game. When I saw him, I was like, 'Wow.' Because we already had a lot of great players, but then just to keep adding players, that was impressive. Mike, he didn't mess around, man. He didn't mess around."
When the 1997 season started, the Broncos didn't mess around, either. Elway recovered from offseason shoulder surgery in time for the regular season, and he led the Broncos into Week 1.
Denver began the season with a 19-3 home win over the Chiefs, riding a strong defensive performance to a win. Elvis Grbac, the Chiefs' quarterback, completed 14-of-25 passes for 115 yards, no touchdowns, an interception and three sacks — and Kansas City did not score until the third quarter. Denver's offense didn't score a touchdown until the final frame, but Davis posted 101 yards on the ground and Smith posted his first career 100-yard game.
"Rod Smith, we actually knew, was going to be a great player for us, just because of how he played in '95 and '96," Shanahan said. "You could see by the way he practiced and the way he played in the games he played in, in both the '95 and '96 seasons, that we had a complete football player. What I mean by that is, he took as much pride in the running game as he did in the passing game, and [that] kind of set the tone for our football team throughout the year. So not only were we good in the passing game, but Rod set the stage for everybody blocking for the run, and one of the reasons why we had so much success in the running game was him and [Ed] McCaffrey worked as wide receivers in tandem, kind of setting the tone for our team."
The Broncos began to rattle off wins, beating the Seahawks, Rams and Bengals by double digits and averaging more than 35 points per game to improve to 4-0. Denver wasn't just scoring on offense; Gordon posted a pick-six and a punt return touchdown, and Alfred Williams returned a fumble 51 yards for a score against Cincinnati. Davis set a single-game franchise rushing record in the win over Cincinnati, as he ran for 215 yards in the 38-20 win. Davis would later be named AFC Offensive Player of the Month as he rushed for 605 yards, four touchdowns and averaged 5.1 yards per carry in the Broncos' 4-0 September run.
The Broncos earned a 29-21 win over the Falcons to close the month after jumping out to a 23-0 lead and then ran away from the Patriots on "Monday Night Football." The previous season, Shannon Sharpe pretended to call the president and asked for the National Guard in a 34-8 win over New England. The 34-13 win in Week 6 over the undefeated Patriots wasn't more much competitive — despite being the latest in the season two undefeated teams had met on "Monday Night Football" — and the Broncos improved to 6-0.
The Broncos were good, and they knew it.
"Going 13-3, we got on a nice streak the previous year as well, so we were used to [winning]," Atwater said. "We went into games like, 'Yeah, we're going to put it on [them].' We wouldn't talk very much in the media, like, 'Yeah, man, we're going to kill these dudes, we're going to destroy them,' or whatever. We'd be very respectful of the other team, but we knew inside our building. The talk amongst ourselves was, 'Man, we're about to run it up on them.' We were just super confident because, again, the coaches we had, they were great coaches and we believed in what they were doing. And we put in the time to understand fully what our responsibilities were, and we just went out and played hard for one another. But yeah, getting off to that start, we kind of felt like that's what we should do.
"I know I sound a little cocky, but when you're in that stage, we just felt like it was something special. We felt like it was what we were supposed to do — we don't want to let the people down."
Denver finally dropped a game in Week 8, a 28-25 decision in Oakland. The contest swung in the third quarter, as John Elway was strip-sacked by Lance Johnstone in Oakland territory and Eric Turner returned the fumble for a touchdown to take a 21-17 lead. Oakland added to its margin in the fourth quarter via an 83-yard Napoleon Kaufman run, and the Broncos could not catch up.
At 6-1, the Broncos faced another test in Week 9 — but it came via the weather. A blizzard enveloped Denver ahead of the Broncos' flight to Buffalo on Saturday, and players and coaches had trouble getting to the facility. Parts of the eastern plains were hit by as much as four feet of snow, and the flight was delayed for more than eight hours. The Broncos were on the first plane to leave Denver International Airport since Friday, and they arrived at their hotel in the early hours of Sunday morning ahead of a 1 p.m. ET kickoff.
As Atwater looks back on the start to Denver's 1997, that game still stands out. The Broncos survived a 20-point fourth-quarter comeback by the Bills to win in overtime, 23-20.
"We ended up leaving later than we wanted to leave and getting into Buffalo later than we wanted to get in, not getting all the rest and all that stuff," Atwater said. "But guess what? We still got up and took care of business, man. We won by a field goal that game, Jason Elam took us back home and we were super confident after that after all the stuff we'd been through. Our attitude was kind of like, 'We did all that to get here; now we can't get here and lose.' It's a great feeling, man, and again, just the guys, everybody, we were just doing it together, [and that made it] even more special."
Denver would add a win over the Seahawks — via a go-ahead fourth-quarter field goal — in Week 10 as John Elway moved into second-place on the all-time passing yardage chart and earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.
"All these things are nice," Elway said after passing Fran Tarkenton on the list. "But in the game of football, individual records don't mean much. The bottom line is winning championships."
The following week, Shannon Sharpe posted the second-highest single-game receiving total of his career to date as the Broncos earned a 34-0 win over the Panthers.
At 9-1, the Broncos sat atop the AFC and held a two-game lead in the division. More than halfway through the season, Denver's chances of securing the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage appeared strong.
The Broncos' path was about to get tougher.
Check back on Thursday for the next installment in our four-part series remembering the Broncos' run to a Super Bowl XXXII title.