The rivalry between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders spans nearly six decades, and some of Denver’s earliest triumphs came at Oakland’s expense. When the Broncos won the American Football Conference for the first time and advanced to Super Bowl XII, it was by virtue of a win over the Oakland Raiders.
The date was Jan. 1, 1978, and it was truly one of the most memorable games in team history. Quarterback Craig Morton, who led the team that year, still remembers it well.
He had a nagging hip pointer which he had suffered late in the season and he hit it once again in the divisional round win over Pittsburgh the previous week.
The veteran quarterback spent the week before the AFC Championship Game in the hospital.
“It was really the week of my life,” Morton says. “Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. We were about to play for the right to go to the Super Bowl, and I had to go to the hospital. … Not only did I have to go in, but I was there all week.”
It should be noted that one of the game’s sidebars is that this changed the way injuries were reported in the NFL. The Broncos kept Morton’s hospital stay a secret from the press all week — which led directly to a new NFL injury-reporting policy.
“[Head coach] Red [Miller] came and gave me the game plan on Wednesday, and we talked a little bit about it,” Morton said. “Then, [wide receiver] Haven Moses came over and we talked a little bit about some of the patterns, some of [what] we were going to try to do to take advantage of some of the things the Raiders were doing.
“But I really didn’t think I was going to play. I didn’t have a clue because I couldn’t even walk.”
That all changed on Sunday morning when Morton left the hospital.
“Sunday morning it was very, very cold, but it was sunny,” Morton says. “A lifelong friend of mine, Leon Hewley, came to the hospital and picked me up. I got up and I could barely walk. He said, ‘What are you thinking?’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this or not.’ Leon said, ‘You’ve worked your whole life to do this. You cannot afford not to play.’ He said, ‘You know, you just have to do this.’ I said, ‘Well, get me to the stadium.’”
Morton arrived at the stadium early, spent an hour and a half in the whirlpool and otherwise just laid on the training table.
Eventually he went to his locker and got dressed, except for his shoes. The venerable quarterback could not touch his feet.
“Red [Miller] came over to me and said, ‘What do you think?’” Morton says. “And I said, ‘Coach, if you can tie my shoes, I’ll play.’ So the head coach tied my shoes. I wonder if any quarterback has ever said that for a championship game.”
That season, Morton had been the final piece of the puzzle for the Broncos, and he played like it against the Raiders.
He told Moses to “go to the corner” against Oakland safety Jack Tatum. Moses was the team’s star wide receiver and the other half of what had become known as “The M & M Connection.” He caught it and went 74 yards down the east sideline for a touchdown.
That gave Denver a 7-3 lead, which the team never relinquished.
The Orange Crush defense played inspired ball against the Raiders and held Oakland scoreless for the rest of the first half. In the third quarter, fullback Jon Keyworth scored to expand the lead to 14-3.
Denver’s final points came on a 12-yard pass from Morton to Moses, as the future Ring of Fame duo connected once again.
That’s when the Raiders scored 14 fourth-quarter points and cut the lead to 20-17.
Morton knew his work wasn’t done.
“On the last drive we had to make a first down because they had started coming back,” Morton said. “I’ll never forget that last running play for us, when [running back] Otis Armstrong’s hand came up out of the mass of people, signaling that he had made the first down, with that No. 1 sticking up. That was phenomenal. The gun sounded, and people went berserk.”
Morton finished the game with a remarkable stat line considering the circumstances. He completed 10 of 20 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Raiders had knocked him down twice, but as he remembers now, “remarkably, both times it was on my ‘good’ side, which allowed me to keep playing.”
His leadership that day and throughout the year made Morton the AFC’s Most Valuable Player for 1977.
On that day, Denver earned the first of its eight AFC Championships. While the franchise has been one of the NFL’s premier teams since, nothing is quite like that first win.
The Denver Broncos had never been in the playoffs before 1977, and on Jan. 1, 1978, Morton did something in the most extreme of physical circumstances that ties him forever to everything that this franchise has become.
And the fact that it came against the Broncos’ arch-rival Oakland Raiders only made it all the sweeter for Broncos Country.