In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Broncos' 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.
For Part I of the series, click here.
PART II: KEEPING THE FAITH
No one ever suggested the Broncos' journey to a championship would be easy.
And easy, it was not.
After a 9-1 start to the season, Denver headed to Kansas City with a two-game lead in the division — and the AFC — and prepared to face off against the 7-3 Chiefs.
The Broncos began the season with a 19-3 victory in which Denver rode a stifling defensive performance to a win — and the rematch initially appeared to be headed down the same path. Denver jumped out to a 13-0 lead on the heels of two Jason Elam field goals and a short touchdown pass from John Elway to Shannon Sharpe, and the Chiefs managed just two first downs through their first three drives.
Kansas City, though, settled in. The Chiefs responded to the Broncos' 13-0 lead with a 77-yard kickoff return that set up a short Marcus Allen touchdown, and the Kansas City defense then sacked Elway twice on the ensuing drive to force a Denver three-and-out. A strong punt return pushed Kansas City into Denver territory to start the Chiefs' next drive, and Rich Gannon would find Danan Hughes with just over a minute to play in the first half to give the Chiefs a 14-13 halftime lead.
The teams traded possessions to begin the second half, but the Chiefs got to Elway again in the third quarter and strip-sacked the future Hall of Famer. Kansas City pushed its lead to 21-13 midway through the third quarter, and the Broncos appeared to be on the ropes. Elway and the Broncos, though, would make a late surge. Denver scored field goals on its next two possessions, and the team's defense held strong. The Chiefs were held without a score on four consecutive possessions, and Elway and the Broncos regained possession late in the game trailing just 21-19. Elway targeted Willie Green on three consecutive plays to push the Broncos to the Kansas City 16-yard line, and while Denver could not score a touchdown, Elam hit a 34-yard field goal to push the Broncos into the lead with one minute to play.
Despite having no timeouts, the Chiefs pushed the ball down the field, and Gannon found Andre Rison for a 10-yard gain to the Denver 37-yard line. With no time remaining, Pete Stoyanovich buried a 54-yarder for the win.
Decades later — even after the Broncos won a world championship later in the year — Mike Shanahan still looks back at that final sequence with disappointment.
"They threw a 10-yard out with five seconds left to give themselves a chance and make a 54-yard field goal, and at that time I was really disappointed with myself in particular, not having the correct defense to keep them from going out of bounds," Shahanan said in a recent interview. "Because if we keep them in bounds, they don't even have a chance to attempt that field goal. So I think you always go back and look at yourself, and say, 'OK, what could we have done differently to win those games?'"
The Broncos still held the division lead following the loss, but Steve Atwater recalls the pain that came with the defeat.
"It being a division game, and the Chiefs, us having such a deep rivalry with them, that hurt," Atwater said. "We went into these games thinking we were going to run it up on people. But obviously, it's just been like this over the years — division games are just tough. They're going to be a battle, there's no telling, it's kind of a toss of a coin who's going to win those games."
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.
At that point in the season, Atwater and his teammates still believed in their ability to win the AFC West — and likely to secure home-field advantage.
"They beat us by two, but our mentality wasn't broken," Atwater said. "We didn't go into the locker room, 'Ah, man, the season's over.' We said, 'Man, they got us. We're going to go get ready, rest up and be ready for next week.'"
The Chiefs, though, would not lose again in the regular season. Their win over the Broncos was the first of six consecutive victories that pushed them to a 13-3 record. After a pair of losses to the Steelers and 49ers, the Broncos were condemned to a 12-4 record and a wild-card berth.
Still, inside the Broncos' locker room, there was no panic. Shanahan stressed to his players that they still had an opportunity to win a championship — and the players did not lose faith.
"Mike stressed that," Atwater said. "I remember 'Romo' [Bill Romanowski] [later] saying that he and Mike were talking, and he said, 'Mike, we've got to do this the long way.' And Mike was like, 'Yeah, we are.' We definitely had conversations about [being a wild-card team], but still, I don't think our confidence ever swayed. I don't think at any point in the season we didn't think that we were good enough to win. Obviously we hadn't won one yet, so we didn't really know what that felt like, but we had the confidence. We had the confidence, we had the coaches, we had the players. It's like, we've got everything. It's like somebody put the silver platter in front of you, and you just [think], 'I can't help but be successful with this.' And that's the way we were, man. We felt like we had it all. And I think that was a big part of it — us having the confidence that we could do it. We weren't questioning, 'Man, who's our quarterback, what's he going to do, can we stop this team? Our coaches, are they going to have a game plan that works for us?' We didn't worry about any of that. We put our heads down, went to work and we played hard for each other and we ended up doing it."
Wide receiver Rod Smith bought into that mindset, as well. One extra game? That was fine by him.
"We didn't care," Smith said. "We really didn't care what we had to do or who we had to go through. We were prepared for that. We had prepared for that the entire season. While we were playing, we were prepared for going through whatever obstacles. We knew obstacles were going to come, but remember, we just lost probably the biggest game in franchise history [against the Jaguars in 1996] in two ways, one for us and the biggest victory for them, being an expansion team and all that. So we knew how that felt and we didn't want that feeling."
The Broncos were determined not to let history repeat itself, but they faced a tough challenge. If they were going to capture their first world championship, they would need to go on the road and beat the Chiefs in a rematch.
A more immediate challenge stood in their way, though. As the playoff picture became clear in the late stages of the 1997 season, the Broncos' opponent was almost poetic.
The Jaguars were headed back to Denver — and the Revenge Tour was set to begin.
Check back on Friday for the next installment in our four-part series remembering the Broncos' run to a Super Bowl XXXII title. To read Part I of our series, click here.