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Sacco Sez: The Broncos' first championship game

It was New Year's Day in 1978 and the Denver Broncos had just completed a 12-2 season that had taken them into the NFL playoffs for the first time.

It seems like old hat to Bronco fans now, so accustomed as we are to what seem like routine playoff appearances and even seven trips to the Super Bowl.

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But it was all new then, and the entire city was awash in a sea of orange. People painted their houses orange, one local company designed an orange toilet seat, and there were even stories of people who could not sell a car, painted it orange, and sold it immediately for more money than they had asked for in the first place!

However, the Broncos had to play the Oakland Raiders, and not only were they the defending Super Bowl champions, but Denver had won just three games against the Raiders from 1963 through and including that 1977 season, and neither had come in Denver. In fact, during that 15-year span the Broncos were 0-13-2 at home against the Raiders.

It is forever a part of Bronco lore that Denver won that game and advanced to Super Bowl XII, so a reciting of the play-by-play is hardly necessary.

But I have some memories that will never go away.

I remember how the fans were so excited at the end that they stormed the field, like in a college football setting, and when they began to pull the goalposts down, Wilbur Latham of the City of Denver, which owned Mile High Stadium, said, "Don't stop them. Let them go. They have waited a long time for this."  

The memories of Tom Jackson and Lyle Alzado with their hands in the air, engaged in primal screams on the playing field, are still vivid today.

That championship game also had a role in three eventual rules changes in the NFL.

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During the entire game, Denver linebacker Bob Swenson shadowed future Hall of Fame tight end Dave Casper with exceptionally close physical coverage. Eventually, the NFL changed the playing rules for defense to reduce contact by defensive players on potential receivers who are downfield.

There was an apparent fumble by Broncos running back Rob Lytle down by the Oakland goal line, picked up and returned well downfield by the Raiders. But no fumble had been detected by the officials, so the ball was replaced and Denver fullback Jon Keyworth scored on a 1-yard run at 6:23 of the third quarter.

Replays showed that there had been a fumble, and this game was a big factor in the NFL eventually adopting instant replay reviews.

And Head Coach Red Miller kept practice closed to reporters throughout the week. Had practices been open, the press would have noticed that quarterback and UPI AFL-AFC Offensive Player of the Year Craig Morton was nowhere to be seen.

Morton spent the week in the hospital with a badly bruised hip, sore during the season and aggravated in the divisional-round game the previous week against the Steelers.

When asked post-practice, "How did Morton look today?" Red kept responding, "He looked good."

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Of course, Red's "look" at Craig was every morning when the coach visited the quarterback in the hospital and went over the game plan with him, in the faint hope that Morton would be able to play on Sunday.

Morton did play, was never sacked (and in fact, he could not bend over to tie his own shoes — Red Miller did that, in full view of the team), and threw two touchdown passes to Haven Moses, the other half of Denver's "M&M Connection."

It almost goes without saying that the NFL changed the way midweek injury updates were reported to the league and to the press, starting with the 1978 season.

There was a lot of history in that championship game, and this week the Broncos play their 10th AFC title game.

We don't know what will happen this week, but that is a look back at some of the history made the very first time the Broncos reached the title game, which Denver now has done 10 times in 39 years.

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