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Way Back Wednesday: Remembering 'The Fumble'

When the Denver Broncos face the Cleveland Browns in Sunday's game, Denver is actually facing the second incarnation of the Browns.

This version of the Browns began play as a new Cleveland team in 1999, after the original Browns relocated to Baltimore.

The Browns of course are led by second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, the former Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma.

But back in the day against the original Browns and their quarterback at the time, Bernie Kosar, the Broncos had one of the most legendary AFC Championship Games of all time, a game special enough to have its own name, that being "The Fumble."

It was Jan. 17, 1988 at Mile High Stadium, the AFC title game for the 1987 season, and it came just one year after future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway had stepped into legend status by leading "The Drive" in Cleveland.

This was perhaps the only instance of two teams playing for the conference title in consecutive years with each game becoming the stuff of legend, as was the case with "The Drive" followed by "The Fumble."

While it happened over 30 years ago, the memories still rankle Cleveland fans who had to watch their beloved Browns lose to Denver for the right to play in the Super Bowl three years out of four, including the 1989 season.

It was mostly sunny in Denver that day in 1988, with a relatively pleasant January high temperature of 44 degrees.

The game saw three first-half scoring drives by Denver that put the Broncos ahead by a 21-3 halftime margin, and it looked like clear sailing for Denver.

But the Browns marched back in the third quarter, scoring 21 points to Denver's 10, and going into the fourth quarter, Denver clung to a 31-24 lead.

Browns running back Earnest Byner had scored twice in the third quarter, the first touchdown on a 32-yard pass from Kosar and the second on a 4-yard run.

Elway connected with wide receiver Mark Jackson on an 80-yard scoring play in that exciting third quarter as well.

Photos from the Broncos' regular-season and postseason games against the Browns, going back to the 1986 AFC Championship Game.

Both quarterbacks had banner days, with Kosar passing for 356 yards and three touchdowns while Elway passed for 281 yards and three scores as well, adding 36 yards on the ground to give him 317 yards of total offense.

The Browns tied the score at 31 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Kosar to wide receiver Webster Slaughter with 10:38 left in the final period.

Denver then went ahead 38-31 with just over four minutes left to play on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Elway to underrated running back Sammy Winder.

But Kosar and the Browns were not done, and the game did not yet have its "forever more" identity.

That would all come on the game's final drive.  

Kosar and the Browns advanced to the Denver 8-yard line with 1:12 remaining and it looked like the two titans would play overtime to determine the AFC championship for the second straight year.

But on the next play Kosar handed the ball to Byner, who accounted for 187 yards of total offense that day (67 rushing and 120 receiving, with one score each way), and it appeared to everyone that Byner had a clear path to the end zone.

However, Byner had the ball stripped by reserve Denver defensive back Jeremiah Castille in a desperation move as Byner thundered by, with Castille recovering the fumble himself at the Broncos’ 3-yard line.

In fact, it looked to many observers like Byner had scored before everyone noticed Broncos linebacker Karl Mecklenburg signaling the fumble recovery by Castille.

There was just a minute left in the game, and Castille left Byner and the Browns crestfallen in disappointment. 

Denver ran three plays and took a safety with eight seconds left as time ran out on the Browns.

The game showcased many heroes on both teams, but the official defensive statistics showed just two tackles for Jeremiah Castille. 

However, the unheralded defensive back from Alabama also had forced and recovered one of the most famous turnovers in National Football League history.

Castille marked the game forever as "The Fumble" in one of the greatest AFC Championship Games ever played and further cemented the great rivalry between the Broncos and the Cleveland Browns.

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