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.
Part I: Rising from Defeat
Part II: Keeping the Faith
PART III: THE REVENGE TOUR
Even now, 25 years later, Rod Smith doesn't mince his words.
"It was revenge," Smith said in a recent interview. "It's like, line them up, slaughter them, who's next? Who hurt us before?"
Smith, of course, refers to the Broncos' three-game postseason slate against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Revenge Tour.
Jacksonville knocked the Broncos out of the 1996 postseason, while the Chiefs and Steelers stole wins against the Broncos during the 1997 season.
But when the Broncos had a second crack at their AFC foes, they didn't waste it.
"Oh, we slaughtered them fools," Smith said.
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.
Denver entered the postseason with a 12-4 record and facing a more difficult task than the organization previously imagined. A key loss to the Chiefs late in the year — combined with two other losses — cost the Broncos the division title, and they were going to be forced to go on the road at least once to earn a Super Bowl title.
"We had the right mindset that, 'Hey, if we get back to the playoffs, we have a chance to do something special. We can't let an opportunity go like it did the year before against Jacksonville, because we're too good of a football team,'" Ring of Fame head coach Mike Shanahan said in a recent interview. "We were too well-balanced on offense, defense and special teams. We knew if we played our best game, no matter where we played, if it's home or away, we had a chance to win. We had to take advantage of it, because we knew how the disappointment was from the year before."
Before the Broncos could look ahead to their third meeting of the season with the Chiefs, though, they had to take care of business at home.
A year after the Broncos lost a shocking Divisional Round game to the Jaguars, they hosted an upstart Jacksonville team again. And this time, the Broncos found far more success.
"We were fired up," Steve Atwater said. "Obviously, we didn't know we were going to win — we had the confidence, but we were like, 'These guys knocked us off last time. We've got to pay them back.' And we were talking off, too. Some of the guys were talking noise on the sidelines, but they stopped us from getting to the Super Bowl that last year, man. And we just had a little bit of extra for them."
The Broncos again jumped out to an early lead, as they had the previous season. A pair of Terrell Davis touchdowns and a 43-yard score by Smith pushed the lead to 21-0 in the second quarter. The Jaguars, though, would battle back.
Midway through the third quarter, with the help of a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown, the Jaguars cut the lead to 21-17. Jacksonville would actually have two chances to jump ahead in the third quarter, as John Elway was strip-sacked to end one drive and lost the ball on a running play to end another.
"People don't realize that back at the end of the third quarter, it was 21-17," Shanahan said. "It was a tight game. And our guys looked at the scoreboard, and the game could've gone either way."
But a year after one of the most painful losses in franchise history, the Broncos ensured history would not repeat itself. Derek Loville and Vaughn Hebron helped carry the load in the fourth quarter, and the Broncos outscored the Jaguars 21-0 in the final frame to earn a 42-17 win. Denver finished the game with 49 carries for 310 yards and five touchdowns, and Davis led the way with 184 yards and two scores.
After allowing the Jaguars to rush for more than 200 yards in the previous playoff matchup, Denver held Jacksonville to just 50 yards rushing in their 1997 playoff win.
"Our guys really stepped up our game, and they didn't want to put us in the same situation we were in a year ago," Shanahan said. "It really taught me more about the character of our football team and [about] them knowing how to close the door with the way they played that fourth quarter."
The Broncos' road was only just beginning. In the Divisional Round of the playoffs, Denver headed back to Kansas City for a rematch of the 24-22 loss that ultimately cost the Broncos a division title.
The Chiefs were the No. 1 seed in the AFC, and the Broncos faced sub-freezing temperatures as they headed to Kansas City. The Broncos' faced a stiff test, which came in large part due to the setting. Since the Chiefs' stadium opened in 1972, the Broncos had won just once at Arrowhead in December. With similarly cold conditions for a Jan. 4 matchup between the Chiefs' top-ranked defense and the Broncos' top-ranked offense, Denver's players knew they were in for a tight battle.
"It was a slugfest," Smith said. "We went against them so many times, they went against us. It wasn't going to be no trick-'em, it wasn't going to be nothing surprising; it was going to be smash-mouth football for 60 minutes. We said, 'Fine. We've got a strong chance.'"
The game was indeed a grind. The Broncos and Chiefs combined for six first-half punts, a missed field goal and a pair of strip-sacks. Denver held a 7-0 lead at the break behind a Davis run, but the Chiefs pushed their way back in front in the third quarter. Denver, though, would not leave Kansas City with another loss. A 43-yard pass to Ed McCaffrey pushed the Broncos to the Kansas City goal line, and Terrell Davis punched the ball in from the 1-yard line on third-and-goal.
Late in the fourth, with the Broncos clinging to a 14-10 lead, the Chiefs pushed the ball down to the Denver 20-yard line. On fourth-and-2, Elvis Grbac dropped back and looked to Lake Dawson in the back left corner of the end zone. Atwater was in close pursuit, but the ball never made it to Dawson. Darrien Gordon — the same player whose arrival in the spring told Atwater of the Broncos' commitment to win a championship — knocked the ball up in the air, and the pass fell incomplete.
"I thought I was going to get a chance for an interception," Atwater said. "… I was right there to get it, but Darrien put his hands underneath it and he tipped it up ... and I turned around because the receiver was behind me and I thought he had a chance to get it, but it hit the ground and I was like, 'Ah, man.' That was a great feeling, because Kansas City is a tough place to play, tough crowd, tough fans, so we were on a mission.
"We were on a mission, man. We were able to pull it out."
Elway threw the ball just 19 times for 170 yards in the game — a far cry from the numbers he was called upon to put up earlier in his career — but the Broncos were victorious. To Elway, that was what mattered.
"John was all about winning," Shanahan said. "That's all he cared about, was winning the Super Bowl. Not just getting there — but winning it and finding a way to do it. And John knew more than anybody how good that defense was, and he was all in. In fact, I actually remember the stats to that game. I said, 'Hey, John, we're probably not even going to throw the ball 20 times,' because they're a team that sacks everybody, the turnovers do a great job, they're the number one-ranked defense and fewest points given up, all those types of things. And he was all in. I believe he was 10-for-19 in that game, but we only [gave up] one sack, we did a great job not turning the football over, so it was really a credit to him and his mindset of how he played the game [was] one of the reasons why we won the way we did."
That mindset, according to Shanahan, is different than the one you might expect from a franchise quarterback.
"It really is," Shanahan said. "Actually, when I came in as a head coach in '95, '96, '97, '98, all those years, we changed our mindset from just letting John win games for us, because he won so many games for us — I mean, any time you go to three Super Bowls in four years and you go to all the playoffs we went to, John knew how to win football games — but we had to prove that we could win a Super Bowl game. And the only way you do that is collectively play as a team, because there are some great teams out there, especially with rush defenses and pass defenses. So, when you get to the playoffs, you've got to find a way to win those games, not just score points. John knew exactly what we had to do, and that's one of the reasons why we won two of them."
Before the Broncos would earn their world championship, though, they had to go through Pittsburgh. On another cold afternoon, the Broncos entered Three Rivers Stadium as underdogs — and they came out victorious.
"I grew up a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, so it was crazy," Smith said. "I grew up in Arkansas, was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but to go there, and this was Three Rivers. Three Rivers Stadium was rocking, man. It was crazy."
The Broncos' defense forced four turnovers in the game — picking off Kordell Stewart three times — and after a back-and-forth second quarter, Denver took a lead it would not relinquish.
The game still went down to the final moments. Stewart's touchdown pass to Charles Johnson cut the lead to 24-21 with 2:46 to play, and the Broncos needed to pick up first downs to run out the clock. Denver hadn't found a first down on either of its previous two possessions, and Elway had completed two of his last seven passes.
The critical play came on third-and-6 from the Denver 15-yard line. With an incompletion — or a run or pass short of the sticks — the Steelers would have gotten the ball back with good field position and plenty of time.
In the huddle, Elway called upon Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe to make a play.
"Well, it was third down-and-6, and we know that if we complete this, that the game's over, we're going to be able to [essentially] run the clock out," Shanahan said. "And Pittsburgh was a heck of a team, and we had won the turnover [differential] that day, and at the same time, we knew how good they were. I think John and Shannon, I'm not exactly sure what the play was called at that time, but they looked at each other and John said to Shannon, 'Hey, Shannon? You get open, and you're going to get the ball.' And that's basically what happened. Shannon got out there, and it wasn't a very wide split, but he got open and as soon as he turned, John hit him.
"Once he caught the ball, I knew that that was the football game. That's two great players making plays at the right time in a big game."
As Shanahan reflected on the play 25 years later, he agreed the play came down to a simple truth: A team's best players must come up big in the biggest moments.
"You have to, and especially when you're going against teams like the Steelers," Shanahan said. "They're the number one-ranked rushing offense, number one rushing defense, and so you've got to make some big-time plays, and a lot of times you've got to improvise. But that was one of the few that, they were changing up fronts and changing up blitzes, and at the end of the day you've got two great players, and 'Hey, you know, this is me and you making the play,' and that's what they did."
With the 24-21 win, the Broncos were headed back to the Super Bowl.
For the fifth time in the franchise's history, they would be playing on the biggest stage.
And this time, they would not be denied.
Part I: Rising from Defeat
Part II: Keeping the Faith
Check back on Saturday for the final installment in our four-part series remembering the Broncos' run to a Super Bowl XXXII title.