ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Redemption can only follow if there's first heartbreak.
And, if anything, "heartbreak" may undersell the nature of the Broncos' 1996 campaign.
In Denver's second season under head coach Mike Shanahan, everything appeared to be clicking for the Broncos. Behind Shanahan's dominant offense and a top-10 defense, the Broncos jumped out to a 12-1 start. John Elway, at 36 years old, said that he was at the most confident he'd ever been in his career. Denver finished the season at 13-3, tied for the best record in the league, and ready to take their well-balanced team deep into the playoffs.
But in Denver's playoff opener, they were shocked by the wild-card Jaguars, who rode a five-game winning streak into the postseason to upset the Broncos at home.
"No matter what happens in the next three or four years, we'll always look back and say, 'I can't believe we lost this one,'" Shannon Sharpe said after the game. "I don't think I'll ever be in a better situation than we had this year. Everything was just so ideal.
"And to have it slip away — this sets the organization back four years, at least. It's going to be the year 2000 before we can ever recover from this."
Even today, the loss stings for the former head coach.
"We were so disappointed because we were a Super Bowl team," Shanahan says. "I don't think I did a good job of preparing our guys, because maybe it was the time that we had off, maybe it was our game plan, or a combination of both. But at the end of the day, we didn't play as physical as we normally play, and we still had a chance to win it, but I was not proud of the way it ended."
Despite the immense disappointment, Shanahan and the Broncos focused on refusing to let the loss be the kind of roadblock that Sharpe feared it would be.
The message was clear.
"If we get that opportunity like we did last year … regardless of where we're at or where we're playing," Shanahan recalls saying, "we're going to take advantage of our next opportunity."
They'd have their chance that year, but it wouldn't be easy. The Broncos won just one fewer game, but it wasn't good enough to win the division. Their road to a championship would have to start with the wild-card round and the team that crushed their title hopes a season earlier.
Using the lessons they learned from the '96 playoff loss, the Broncos and Shanahan ensured there would be no repeat disappointment.
"[In 1996,] Terrell Davis carried the ball 14 times for 91 yards and averaged, obviously a lot of yards per carry, and then the next year we play them and we're going to be a lot more physical," Shanahan says. "We ran the ball 49 times for over 300 yards. So, big difference. It was kind of like the mindset — losing one year and you kind of knew why, and our team really responded in the right way."
That game began what quickly became widely known as the "Revenge Tour." Over the 1997 playoff run, the Broncos faced teams that delivered painful losses either in 1996 or the 1997 regular season. Next up was the Chiefs, who had beaten the Broncos in a Week 12 game in 1997 that in essence secured the AFC West title.
On the road in a raucous Arrowhead Stadium, the Broncos had their work cut out for them. Kansas City's defense gave up the fewest points that season and picked off the fourth-most passes.
Ahead of the game, Shanahan says, he told Elway that the game plan would likely not allow him to engage in a shootout.
"'John, this defense, they are good. … They get turnovers and they sack quarterbacks,'" Shanahan recalls telling Elway the week of the game. "I said, 'You're probably not even going to get 20 throws in the game. We're going to have to run the ball to win it. This team is a Super Bowl type defense, so … you're going to have to understand that we're going to have to run the ball as much as we probably normally do.'
"… John was all in to win the Super Bowl, because he knew how bad he felt after losing that game the year before against Jacksonville. He played, what I consider, a flawless game. People look at it and go, 'Nineteen passing attempts and you didn't get a lot of yards,' but you've got to find a way to win. For John, the competitor of him came out. He said, 'I'm going to do anything to give us a chance to win.'"
In freezing temperatures, the Broncos and Chiefs dueled in a low-scoring affair. Kansas City led late after a 10-point run gave them a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. But behind 101 yards and two touchdowns from Terrell Davis, the Broncos came out on top and moved on to the AFC Championship.
There, the Broncos faced off against the Steelers, who handed them a 35-24 loss just a few weeks earlier. At Three Rivers Stadium, the Broncos held a late 10-point lead, but Kordell Stewart and Pittsburgh cut it to three with just over three minutes to play. If they could force Denver into a three-and-out, the Steelers could have a shot to tie or win the game.
On third-and-6, the Steelers had their shot. One incomplete pass and the Broncos would have to punt from their own 15-yard line.
After the two-minute warning, Shanahan called the play. Elway would take the snap from shotgun with all five receivers, including Sharpe, the tight end, spread wide across the field to run seven- or eight-yard hitch routes.
Sharpe, though, wasn't familiar with the call.
"John came into the huddle and called, 'All pivot,'" Sharpe said after the game. "I told him, 'John, we don't have that play.' He said, 'We do now.' I'm leaving the huddle and I yell at him, 'John, what do you want me to do?'"
Simple, Elway told him: "Just get open."
From the slot, Sharpe was matched up with linebacker Jason Gildon, a future Pro Bowler and All-Pro. Still, it was the mismatch Elway was looking for.
"That happens a lot," Shanahan says. "… Maybe he heard something different than he thought, especially being in that position. But John and Shannon were very close. … He looked at him and said, 'Hey, get open.' And that's what he did. He kind of shook the guy and John hit it right on the money and all of a sudden now the game's over. If not, they've got a lot to time to come back and try to score."
The Broncos were now on the doorstep of the ultimate goal. But there was still a significant unease about town. Denver had been to the Super Bowl four times before, and each game was rough, to say the least. Even with Elway under center, the Broncos lost three Super Bowls by an average of 32 points, and those games lingered in the collective consciousness among Broncos fans.
"People didn't even want us to go to the Super Bowl that year because we'd been embarrassed in three Super Bowls," Shanahan says. "… There was a lot of question marks, especially against a team that was favored like Green Bay was."
Shanahan didn't feel that way, of course. In fact, he said he felt perhaps as confident as ever.
Look back through the coaching career of the Broncos' all-time winningest coach — new Ring of Famer Mike Shanahan.
"I just had a great gut [feeling]," Shanahan says. "I just knew we were going to win that game. I had that feeling with the guys and how they prepared. And we kept a low profile as well. It was a very physical game, because we were going against the best defense in the league and some great pass rushers, but our guys wore 'em down. And that was a big part about it. … We played four quarters of physical football and was able to come up with a big win."
The most memorable moment of the game was clearly its most physical. Late in the third quarter, the Broncos moved into the red zone hoping to break a 17-17 tie. On third-and-6, Shanahan and the Broncos faced a crucial moment. A touchdown would give the Broncos necessary breathing room. A field goal would give the Packers a chance to take the lead.
"On the 12-yard line, they played off [coverage] most of the time, and we normally would run a quarterback draw — we did that quite a few times with John," Shanahan says. "But the quarterback draw, the center would snap the ball out of the shotgun and they'd go block a linebacker, and those linebackers were very good at coming up and playing the quarterback draw, and we had already been down there and we didn't have success.
"I said, 'You know what? I'm going to try … to put this in John's hands.'"
The play call was not one of Elway's favorites. During practice that week, the team had run it only from inside the five-yard line. Assuming Green Bay's cornerbacks would be lined up close to the line of scrimmage, perhaps in bump coverage given the shortened field at just five yards from the goal line, the plan was to throw a fade to a wideout.
"Every time in practice, John says, 'Well, what if they don't run it, the bump? We don't throw it?'" Shanahan recalls "I said, 'Don't worry about it.'"
Facing that third-and-6 from the 12, though, Shanahan saw an opportunity for Elway and the offense even though he knew the Packers wouldn't be in the planned coverage.
"I knew he didn't like the play, but what he didn't know is that third down and six or seven from the 12, that I knew they were going to play off," Shanahan says. "And I said, 'What a position to put John into, that, number one, they don't expect the quarterback draw coming. John goes back his five steps and then he just takes off, and he runs over a couple people and does a helicopter.
"It kind of defined what a competitor he was. Even though he didn't like the play, he said, 'You know what? I'm going to run it,' and unbelievable job of execution."
A quarter after the now iconic play, Elway, Shanahan and the Broncos were Super Bowl champions for the first time.
After the heartbreak that wrecked their previous season, the Broncos found redemption — and it made lifting that Lombardi Trophy all the sweeter.
"When you finally do get there and win it, part of the process is going through those pains and agony and doing the little things the right way," Shanahan says. "But there's nothing better than finally winning it, especially if you've gone through adversity along the way."