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Paying tribute to Ken "The Snake" Stabler

Take a photographic trip through the series history between the Broncos and the Raiders.

Any time a team wins a championship it is a great compliment to the hard work, dedication and talent of the team that won.

But sometimes, in our most private moments, you have to give some thought to the team you beat, and to the players you beat. And when you beat one of the all-time great comeback quarterbacks, that is a huge part of the tapestry you have woven.

So it was when the Denver Broncos won the AFC Championship in 1977, for in winning that game to advance to Super Bowl XII, the Broncos defeated the defending Super Bowl champion Raiders... and legendary quarterback Ken Stabler.

Ken Stabler: the original "Snake" of the modern era.

Ken Stabler, who passed away on Wednesday, was once described to me by an associate as "the modern Bobby Layne."

There is actually an association between Stabler and Layne of which virtually no one is aware. Every team takes a team picture every year, and of course Stabler was in those pictures for the Raiders (as well as for Houston and New Orleans, each of which he played for briefly).

But few know that Ken Stabler also appeared in a Lions team picture, and though Bobby Layne had a few stops along the way, he was the ultimate Detroit Lion.

Stabler was doing television color in 1987 and as such did one of the Detroit Lions replacement games that year. Lions Public Relations Director Bill Keenist, a dear friend of mine, organized a team picture for the replacement Lions, and just before it was to be shot, unbeknownst to any of the other players, Stabler emerged in a Detroit number 123 Honolulu blue jersey to pose in the picture with the temporary Lions.

Keenist announced, "You gentlemen will have a legendary quarterback in your team picture."

So it came to pass that two quarterbacks from different eras who both likely studied the game plans by the light of a jukebox each appeared in a Lions team picture, one without playing for the team.

Indeed he was a modern era Bobby Layne.

For his part, The Snake never once made any denial of learning the game plan by a saloon jukebox. But come Sunday, there were few like him.

Stabler was the NFL Most Valuable Player in 1974 and a four-time Pro Bowler with the Oakland Raiders, whom Hall of Fame Head Coach John Madden called "the perfect Raider."

He was the embodiment of those two elements that Bronco fans had for the Raiders: hatred and respect.

When the Broncos won that Jan. 1, 1978 AFC title game in Mile High Stadium, they defeated a quarterback who had won eight of his nine previous games against Denver, including seven straight at one point.

Most recently at that time, Staler had engineered a 32-14 Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings the previous season.

Madden said that "If I had one drive to win a game, and I could pick just one quarterback, to this day my choice would be Ken Stabler." The coach added that "Snake was a lot cooler than I was. He was a perfect quarterback. When you think about the Raiders, you think about Ken Stabler."

Some of us who were lucky enough to work the most recent Golden Era of NFL history still do.

That was when the Raiders were the Raiders, and there was no better leader than Ken Stabler.

Indeed, as fabled as that Orange Crush 1977 season has become, I vividly recall great Broncos fans asking me during that AFC Championship Game week, "Do you really think we can do it? Can we beat Stabler?" It did not matter that the game was in Denver with an opponent like him.

Stabler was a complete throwback to Bobby Layne, of whom his teammate Doak Walker once famously said "Bobby never lost a game. Some days, time just ran out on him."

The Broncos prevailed and went to the Super Bowl, with great respect for the fallen quarterback.

And I write this with great respect for the fallen quarterback today.

The Snake didn't lose in the game of life, time just ran out on him.

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