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Way Back When: The Broncos' biggest moment against the Raiders


At this time, the Broncos are fighting and clawing their way back to NFL respectability. It might take a little while, but no one doubts the team will get there.

Denver's first winning season came in 1973, and the first playoff team and Super Bowl season came in 1977. Then, from 1977 through 2015, it seemed like all Denver did was win.

But that first moment that stamped the Broncos as contenders and potential champions came against the Raiders.

They were the Oakland Raiders then, defending NFL champions, with a hardened corps of veteran, winning players led by future Hall of Famers Al Davis and John Madden.

It was the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 1, 1978, and while Denver fans were always at the top of their game in terms of support, there was nervousness and trepidation in the crowd.

After all, these were the Raiders.

There were so many layers to this game one hardly knows where to start, but there is no question what was key.

Broncos quarterback Craig Morton woke up in the hospital that morning. He had secretly spent the entire week there after sustaining a bad hip bruise the previous week against Pittsburgh. Head coach Red Miller not only kept Morton's whereabouts secret, but he closed practice to make sure the press did not notice that his quarterback was absent.

Morton did not think he could play. But he had a longtime friend visiting him in Denver, and the friend convinced him to give it a try.

"You have waited your whole career for this moment," Craig relays that his friend said.

"If you will drive me to the stadium, I will give it a try," Morton eventually said.

Can you imagine these circumstances today? Fans driving to the game with hopes and expectations at the same time as the quarterback, who had every doubt in his mind? Can you imagine the other players when Morton walked into the locker room?

He quietly dressed but could not bend to tie his shoes.

Again, can you imagine the sight as all the players watched their head coach kneel down to tie Morton's shoes?

After rising, Miller gathered his offensive line together and said, "If he gets knocked down, we are finished." Roughly, that is what Red said. I might have edited a word or two.

Morton played great. So did his line and receivers. Morton threw two touchdown passes to Haven Moses, the receiving end of the "M&M Connection," and his line protected him all day.

"I got knocked down twice," Craig told me, "and both times it was on my good hip."

When it was over, the Broncos were AFC champions and on their way to Super Bowl XII. Later, Morton was named Pro Football Weekly's Comeback Player of the Year. It was a remarkable comeback for a player whom the Broncos had rescued from the New York Giants trash heap.

After the game, the fans stormed the field and tore down the goalposts, and the city stood aside and let them.

It had been a long time coming, and there had been no nemesis like the Oakland Raiders, who had gone 24-2-2 against Denver from 1963-76.

And since then, it has never been the same between Denver and the Raiders.

Miller began a postgame prayer with the words, "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Oakland Raiders are in second place."

The history of pro football in Denver had been altered forever, on a cold day nearly 44 years ago.

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