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
PART IV: THE FINAL HURDLE
There's an oft-repeated story about John Elway in the aftermath of the Broncos' 1997 AFC Championship Game win.
Following the win over the Steelers, Elway phoned his mother, Janet, to celebrate the Broncos' upcoming trip to Super Bowl XXXII. But Elway's three previous — and painful — trips to the Super Bowl weighed on her mind.
"Do we have to go?" she said, according to a 2015 Sports Illustrated article.
"Mom," Elway replied. "I can't win one if I don't get there."
Elway was just one of the Broncos' future Hall of Famers who were nearing the ends of their careers and had yet to win a Lombardi Trophy.
Tackle Gary Zimmerman retired following the 1996 season, but the three-time All-Pro returned to the team early the next year for his 12th season. Steve Atwater, meanwhile, was in his ninth season without a world championship.
Early in Atwater's career, that seemed almost unfathomable. The Broncos made it to the Super Bowl in Atwater's rookie season in 1989, and he assumed the Broncos would be back quickly.
It wasn't meant to be.
Denver finished at 8-8 or worse in three of the next five seasons, and the team suffered a loss in their lone AFC Championship Game appearance during that stretch.
Then, Mike Shanahan returned to Denver in 1995.
"We had a drought where we didn't get to the playoffs, none of that, and near the end I was like, 'Will I ever get back?'" Atwater said in a recent interview. "And then when Mike came in, all that changed. It's just a matter of time."
After going 8-8 in Shanahan's first season, the Broncos went 13-3 in 1996 and earned a Super Bowl XXXII appearance in his third season.
Their reward? A meeting with the defending Super Bowl champions.
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.
Nobody gave the Broncos much of a chance.
Brett Favre and the Packers ran away from the Patriots the previous year to earn a Super Bowl XXXI victory, and many viewed them as strong favorites to repeat against the Broncos. When the betting markets closed ahead of the game, the Broncos were double-digit underdogs.
"I remembered every announcer and their prediction of the score, and none of them had [picked] us to win," Rod Smith said in a recent interview. "And I was [mad]. The night before the Super Bowl, you watch all these predictions, none of them picked us to win, and I'm cussing, I'm like, 'You know what? Eff y'all. We're going to show you, and you're going to eat [crow].' I'm just going off."
In the week leading up to the game, Atwater remembers answering question after question about how the team would stop a high-powered Green Bay offense. And he also remembers the Packers themselves expressing confidence that they would find success against the Broncos.
"They would go out in the media and be like, 'Yeah, man, we can run the ball, we're going to be able to pass, we're going to be able to do anything we want to do,'" Atwater said. "I was like, 'All right, that's kind of disrespectful.' We're trying to play it nice. And so we go into the game, and we're a little ticked off about that."
The Broncos were playing for more than just their own Lombardi Trophy; they also aimed to stop a 13-year streak in which the NFC had won the Super Bowl.
"We looked at that and were like, 'Dude, they've been dominating,'" Atwater said. "But we knew we had something special, man. We knew we had a little bit of something special. The ball bounced our way, we played hard."
In the moments before the Broncos headed out to the field, Smith encountered one of the best players in team history: Ring of Famer Tom Jackson, a member of the Broncos' Orange Crush defense who helped lead Denver to its first Super Bowl appearance.
"This is a weird moment, but right before we were going out, of course you're drinking a lot of water, you've got a lot of adrenaline, you're going to the bathroom for, like, the fourth time," Smith said. "I'm standing there going to the bathroom, and I look to my right, and Tom Jackson's there. You know, Bronco legend, we love Tom, and I said, 'Tom, they're going to call it an upset. We're supposed to win. Watch.'"
Despite the Broncos' confidence, they knew they faced a tough task. The Packers held the second-ranked scoring offense and the third-ranked passing offense, and they held the fifth-ranked scoring defense, as well.
"We knew how good they were," Ring of Fame head coach Mike Shanahan said recently. "You could see it on the field, so we knew we had to play our best football. Our game plan there was to keep it close, really tire them out, run the ball as much as we could through three quarters, and then in the fourth quarter, play our best football and find a way to win."
The Packers didn't make that easy. Green Bay received the opening kick off and marched down the field in eight plays for an opening touchdown. Still, Denver kept its confidence.
"I remember when they scored," Smith said. "Shannon Sharpe said, 'They got seven [points], let's go get eight.'"
The Broncos wouldn't go for a two-point conversion, but they did post an 11-play drive of their own. Terrell Davis plunged into the end zone from the 1-yard line to tie the game at 7-7, and the Broncos showed signs of a fight.
On the ensuing possession, the Broncos brought pressure off the left edge to force Favre out of the pocket and his second-down pass sailed over the head of Robert Brooks. Tyrone Braxton slid to intercept the pass, and the Broncos were back in business.
Davis started the drive with a 16-yard run, and he later pushed the ball down to the 1-yard line. On third-and-1, Elway faked a handoff, booted to the right and ran into the end zone to give the Broncos the lead for the first time. The play may have looked routine, but there was far more to it than it initially seemed.
Earlier in the game, Davis began to feel the effects of a migraine that would force him from the game for most of the second quarter. Davis entered the game, though, for the critical third-down play. Davis was merely a decoy, but he required enough attention from the defense that Elway was able to score.
The Broncos' defense would continue to play well against one of the league's best offenses. Atwater strip-sacked Favre on a third-and-5 play on a second-quarter drive, and Neil Smith recovered the fumble. The Broncos would add a field goal to push the lead to 17-7, but their offense stalled the rest of the first half without Davis in the game.
With less than 20 seconds to play in the half, Favre found Mark Chmura in the corner of the end zone for a 6-yard score to cap a 17-play, 95-yard scoring drive to cut the lead to 17-14.
The Packers would tie the game on their first drive of the third quarter after a Davis fumble, but Atwater nearly recorded a score of his own. Atwater undercut a route near the sideline, but the Hall of Famer couldn't haul in the interception.
"I dropped one interception; it was right in my hands," Atwater said. "… Probably could've scored if I'd have caught it. I knew the route they were running. They were running a little go route, and I just faked one way, went over there. I remember when I dropped it, first person looking at me, 'Crock' [Ray Crockett], he's like, 'The hell is wrong with you, man?' I went to the sidelines. Mike, he was [mad], you know. I'm like, 'Hey man, I'm sorry. I didn't try to drop it.'"
The game remain tied until the late stages of the third quarter, when the Broncos faced a third-and-6 on the Green Bay 12-yard line. And that set the stage for the most famous play in Broncos history.
Elway took the shotgun snap, dropped back to the 22-yard line and then stepped up and scrambled forward. He kept his eyes downfield, but as he crossed the 15-yard line, he tucked the ball and ran forward. As Elway neared the first-down marker at the 6-yard line, it became clear he wasn't going to get there with an ordinary effort. And so, Elway leapt forward from the 7-yard line and launched head-first into a trio of defenders. Elway was hit in midair and spun around, but he picked up the first down. The Helicopter was born — and two plays later, the Broncos again had the lead via Davis' second touchdown.
"They were such a great red-zone defense, the top red-zone defense in the National Football League," Shanahan said. So, we had to come up with something in that situation that we felt gave us a chance to score. At the same time, we didn't feel like they were so good with the pass rush and so good in the red-zone defense, we thought hitting the seam was maybe a little outside our zone. So we put it all on John's shoulders, and when he first looked at it, he kind of looked over at me, like, 'I was hoping we weren't going to get this [defense and that] we were going to get the blitz,' but at that time, in that kind of distance, I said, 'You're going to make a play here.' And just watching him take that five-step drop, and how he ran the football and how he made the first down, that's when you knew the game was over."
The play was more than a first down; it signified the lengths to which Elway and the Broncos would go to win their first world championship.
When the Packers fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Tim McKeyer recovered, it indeed seemed the Broncos had locked up a win. The drama wasn't quite over, though. Elway looked for Smith in the end zone for the clinching score, but Eugene Robinson snagged an interception to keep the Packers' hopes alive.
Favre completed a series of passes to Antonio Freeman on the next drive, and in a flash, the Packers had tied the game. And that, finally, was when the Broncos' game plan came to fruition. Davis carried the ball repeatedly over the next two possessions, and the Broncos wore the Packers' defense down. With less than three minutes to play, Elway found Howard Griffith for a key 23-yard gain, which was set up by a vicious block from Ed McCaffrey. On second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Davis ran into the end zone untouched, and the Broncos needed one final stop.
The Packers made it all the way to the Broncos' 31-yard line before Denver's defense came up with a series of stops. Darrien Gordon forced an incompletion on second-and-6, and Atwater delivered a thundering hit on a pass intended for Brooks to set up fourth down.
"I was driving back into my zone, I had the middle third of the field, shaded to the 'trip' side and I saw Brett Favre throw that ball, like, 'I can't let anybody catch this ball,'" Atwater said. "That's what I was thinking about — 'I can't let anybody catch this ball. Not today.' And I just ran up in there, man, and then I was sniffing smelling salts."
On the clinching play — the moment that handed the Broncos their first world championship — linebacker John Mobley undercut a Favre pass, and it fell incomplete.
"I was on the sidelines and looking up at the clock, like, 'Damn, I think we won,'" Atwater said. "And that was it."
Added Shanahan: "When John made it, it was just so much of a relief of so many years of being there, of never getting it done and finally getting it done with a bunch of unselfish players that were all going in the same direction."
On the sideline, the Broncos' sideline erupted. Elway threw his arms into the air, and then embraced Atwater. The Broncos had done it. Elway got his long-awaited championship, Davis earned Super Bowl MVP honors and the entire team realized its potential.
"It was life-changing," Atwater said. "This is the thing that, when you get in the NFL, this is the thing you work for — for every team, all 32 teams are working to get to the Super Bowl. And to get there, and to win it, it's indescribable. Because you look back on all the hard work that you've done: Little-league football — obviously little league, I didn't know I was going to play in the NFL — high school, college. And then to play in the NFL for all those years, and my ninth year, finally get a chance to go there and actually win it, it was special. There's so many wonderful, great players, Hall of Fame players who don't get that opportunity. So that was my favorite moment.
"My favorite play was that last play, John Mobley's play where he knocked that pass down, and I'm like, 'Shoot, I think we won.' I still get chills from thinking about that moment, man, because it was like everything you worked for, you've got it right here."
The Broncos would capture the same magic a year later. They would roll through the regular season and beat the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII to earn back-to-back titles. Nothing, though, compared to that first win.
"You go back and do it again the next year, that was even crazier," Atwater said. "But I think the first one is always the best, just getting over the hump, like, 'Damn, we can do it.'"
Twenty-five years later, the specific plays aren't as clear. The order of the games and the final scores of that 1997 season have faded a bit in the minds of some of the greatest players.
But the friendships, the bond between teammates and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment have not faded. And as the men from that first title team look back on their experience, there's also a sense of gratitude to be involved in that moment.
"When you reflect on those stats and those type of things, it's because you lived it and it was a part of your life and you enjoyed it, and you didn't even think of it as work," Shahanan said. "It was a great situation to have, and to be around those guys, you feel so lucky and so fortunate to be able to experience that in your lifetime."
As they look back on a historic run, Broncos Country undoubtedly feels the same.