Elway’s Breakthrough Year With The 1986 Denver Broncos

The time had arrived for the 1986 Denver Broncos. It was John Elway’s fourth year and his first three had been an appropriate mix of success and disappointment for a growing young quarterback. They had reached the playoffs in 1983 and 1984 and gone 11-5 in 1985. In 1986, the Broncos took the next step and reached Elway’s first Super Bowl.

Start reading today. 

Elway made the Pro Bowl, but his overall numbers weren’t spectacular. His 56% completion rate was barely above the league average and even with one of the game’s all-time great rifle arms, the 6.9 yards-per-attempt was below the league norm. He avoided making mistakes. On the surface that shouts “game manager.” But underneath the numbers, Elway led a mostly pedestrian offense to the sixth-most points in the NFL.

There were no 1,000-yard receivers to bail Elway out. Steve Watson was a good possession receiver and Mark Jackson had some speed, but combined they didn’t reach 1,500 yards. Sammy Winder was the top running back, but he only averaged 3.3 yards-per-attempt. How he made the Pro Bowl is a bit of a mystery. The offensive line was built around Pro Bowl left guard Keith Bishop.

What Denver ultimately had was Elway and the pass-catching ability of the backs. Winder caught 26 balls out of the backfield and the big target was Gerald Wilhite, who led the team with 64 catches.

The defense had more individual talent. Rulon Jones was a 1st-team All-Pro at defensive end and recorded 13 ½ sacks. Karl Mecklenburg was another 1st-team All-Pro at inside linebacker, getting 9 ½ sacks in an aggressive 3-4 scheme. Strong safety Dennis Smith made the Pro Bowl, while corner Mike Harden picked off six passes. For leadership, Tom Jackson was at outside linebacker and the future ESPN analyst was 35-years-old.

But the defense didn’t have its equivalent of Elway and consequently was a mediocre 15th in the league in points allowed.

Denver had lost two crushing games down the stretch to the Los Angeles Raiders in 1985, the games that swung the AFC West title. The Broncos hosted the Raiders in the opening game of 1986 and it was another thriller. It wasn’t necessarily well-played, with double-digit penalties on both sides, but it came down to the wire.

The Broncos trailed 36-28 in the fourth quarter in the era prior to the two-point conversion. Elway, who finished with 239 yards passing, led one of his patented comebacks. After a 51-yard field goal, a touchdown pass to Gene Lang won it 38-36. Denver won again the following Monday Night in Pittsburgh, with Elway going 21/38 for 243 yards and three touchdowns in a 21-10 win over a weak Steeler team.

The running game made an appearance in Philadelphia a week later. The Eagles were coached by Buddy Ryan, the architect of the devastating 1985 Chicago Bears defense that won the Super Bowl. Buddy’s rebuilding project in Philly was just getting started and Winder and Wilhite ran over the Eagles for a combined 195 yards in a 33-7 win.

Denver hosted defending AFC champion New England on the last weekend of September and fell behind 13-3 at the half. Elway was erratic, going 18/34 for 188 yards. But by outrushing the Patriots 156-40, the Broncos turned the game around and scored 24 unanswered points. They won 27-20.

The Dallas Cowboys ended the season a mediocre 7-9, but they got off to a strong start and were 3-1 and the visit to Mile High Stadium was a marquee showdown game. After a scoreless first quarter, Elway started making big plays. He finished 12/24 and made those passes go for 300 yards. Wilhite caught two touchdowns out of the backfield and ran for a third in a 29-14 win.

Elway played well again in a road game at San Diego. The Chargers were a poor team, but Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts could still gin it up every once in a while. He and Elway each moved the ball, but the Broncos had a running game and their defense recorded five sacks. It was the difference in an easy 31-14 win.

Another Monday Night visit awaited and this one was in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets who were flying high and had lost just once. Denver still came in a 3 ½ point favorite with their 6-0 record, but on the national stage they laid an egg. Elway threw a couple interceptions, they were outrushed 137-47, fell behind 22-zip in the third quarter and lost 22-10.

The undefeated run might have been over but Denver bounced back with a tough home win over Seattle. The Seahawks were a good team that would compete for a playoff spot to the bitter end. Elway was 18/32 for 301 yards while spreading the ball around. It trumped Seattle running back Curt Warner’s 139-yard day in a 20-13 Bronco win.

Denver’s defense stood stall in the rematch with the Los Angeles Raiders at the L.A. Coliseum. They picked off Raider quarterback Marc Wilson four times and also recovered two fumbles. The coup de grace was Mike Harden’s 40-yard interception return for a touchdown that sealed a 21-10 win.

The Broncos must have suffered an emotional letdown, because nothing else can explain a horrid home performance against San Diego with Fouts out and backup Tom Flick in. Elway was awful, 13/31 for 196 yards and three interceptions. In spite of being nearly a two-touchdown favorite, Denver lost 9-3.

Special teams keyed the bounceback home game against the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos scored off a fake punt and Wilhite brought a punt 70 yards to the house. The defense also produced a touchdown. This was all in the first half as the lead grew to 31-0 and Denver coasted home to a 38-17 win.

Another visit to the Meadowlands, this one to play the New York Giants, was an anticipated game on the schedule. The Giants were 9-2 and this game was hyped as a possible Super Bowl preview. It would be exactly that and this game lived up to the stakes.

Elway was brilliant against one of the great defenses in the league, going 29/47 for 336 yards and spreading the ball around among all his receivers. The difference was that he did throw a couple picks. The killer came in the second quarter. Denver led 6-3 and was in the New York red zone looking for more. Giant defensive tackle George Martin got his hands on an Elway pass, and managed to rumble 78 yards for a touchdown.

Denver stayed in the game, but giving away a touchdown like that was too much to overcome against a good team on the road. They lost 19-16.

The Broncos were still in control of the AFC West at 9-3, but by no means home free. They had the Raiders in their rearview mirror at 8-4 and in the conference overall were chasing the 10-2 Jets for the #1 playoff seed. Denver would stay fairly stable down the stretch, though the teams around them would do some considerable shuffling.

Cincinnati was chasing a playoff spot when they came to Denver on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, but the Broncos recovered well from the tough loss a week earlier. After falling behind 14-10 to a high-powered offense led by Boomer Esiason and a potent running game, Elway threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Jackson and then flipped an eight-yard scoring toss to Winder. The Broncos got some good running of their own, with 182 yards on the ground. They led as much as 34-14 before the Bengals scored a couple TDs to make the final a respectable 34-28.

The Raiders lost, as did the Jets. The opportunity to clinch the AFC West and keep in position for the top playoff seed was at hand when Denver went to Kansas City. The teams traded field goals in the first quarter and touchdown passes in the second. But the Broncos couldn’t protect Elway, who was sacked five times. And the great quarterback wasn’t careful with the football, throwing four picks. They bogged down in the third quarter, falling behind 17-10 and then came undone in the fourth quarter. The Chiefs pulled away 37-10.

Another loss by Los Angeles kept Denver in control of the AFC West. At 10-4, they led the Raiders, Chiefs and Seahawks by two games. The Jets lost again, but now the Browns were moving up in the AFC. They were also 10-4, as were the Patriots. In a logjam, Cleveland had the tiebreaker advantage.

First things first. Denver had to clinch the division and they had a Saturday game with the Washington Redskins, who would finish 12-4, on deck. The Redskins scored first, but missed the extra point. Without a two-point conversion to try and make it up, it kept the Broncos with an edge throughout the game and proved decisive. Elway went 20/35 for 282 yards and led the way to a 31-30 win that clinched a second division title in three years.

Denver closed the season with another Saturday date, this one in Seattle. There was still a lot in the line, as they could be seeded anywhere from 1-3. But the Broncos playing for seeding didn’t match the Seahawks playing with desperation. Denver was overwhelmed on the ground, giving up 298 yards rushing in a 41-16 loss.

It took the Broncos out of position for the 1-seed and put their hold on the 2-spot at risk. But the Jets completed a late-season collapse with a loss the following day and it locked Denver into the 2-spot. When the Patriots won on Monday Night they took the AFC East title and were set for a divisional playoff date in Mile High Stadium.

Nearly thirty years later, Broncos-Patriots would be a marquee date on the schedule, featuring Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. It wasn’t quite that big of a deal in 1986 when they met on late Sunday afternoon in the final game of the NFL weekend. But this edition of Denver-New England was as good as any of the more heralded games that would take place in future years.

The teams started quietly, with the Broncos getting a good first-quarter drive that ended in a 27-yard field goal. In the second quarter, both offenses put together sustained marches. The Patriots drove 87 yards for a 7-3 lead, capping it off with Tony Eason’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Stanley Morgan. Denver responded by going 82 yards, with Elway making it happen on the ground, scrambling 22 yards for a score. New England got a field goal before halftime and the game went to intermission tied 10-10.

Another Bronco drive bogged down in the red zone and they settled for a 22-yard field goal. Denver led 13-10, but they had twice settled for field goals down in close. Elway was also erratic and for the day he would complete just 13 of 32 passes.

Meanwhile, Morgan continued to cause problems for the Bronco secondary, getting loose on a 45-yard touchdown pass off a flea-flicker. New England led 17-13 as the quarter wound down.

The one thing Elway was doing was making big throws. His thirteen completions went for 257 yards and the biggest throw came on the final play of the third quarter. Denver was on the 48-yard line. New England jumped offsides and Elway had a free play. He used it to go deep to Vance Johnson and the result was as 48-yard touchdown pass.

Denver had the lead back at 20-17 and they were running the ball well. Winder rushed for 102 yards and the defense took over the fourth quarter. New England never scored again and Rulon Jones sealed the game when he sacked Eason for a safety. The 22-17 win was Denver’s first playoff victory since their AFC championship season of 1977.

The Broncos were a three-point underdog in Cleveland the next week. An early kickoff of 12:30 PM ET meant that Denver had to deal with the body clock issues that come when western teams travel east. And they were slow out of the gate, with the Browns driving 86 yards for a first-quarter touchdown. Bernie Kosar’s six-yard toss to running back Herman Fontenot put Cleveland up 7-0.

It was the defense that began to flip the script in the second quarter, getting three turnovers. Two of them were turned into points, although red-zone problems continued to hurt Denver. They settled for a 19-yard field goal to get on the board and were later stuck with 4th-and-goal on the 1-yard line. Head coach Dan Reeves couldn’t keep settling for three and he went for it. Wilhite delivered with the touchdown. The Browns got a field goal just before the half and for the second week in a row the Broncos were tied 10-10 at the half.

The teams traded field goals, Denver in the late third quarter and Cleveland in the fourth. With 5:43 to go, the Browns appeared to finally strike the decisive blow. Kosar threw a 48-yard touchdown pass for a 20-13 lead. The Broncos messed up the ensuing kickoff and were pinned on their own two-yard line. The Dawg Pound was going crazy, their excellent defense was playing well and Elway was up against it. Now would be the time he made his legend.

A long 15-play drive began. The defining play was a 3rd-and-18, still deep in Cleveland territory. Elway, eschewing advice from Reeves to get half of it back, rifled a first-down strike to Jackson. He smoothly led Denver down the field and they tied the game with inside a minute left.

“The Drive” is what the game is remembered for and it remains the signature moment of Elway’s extraordinary career. But there was still an overtime to play. Cleveland got the ball first, but the Denver defense held. After getting the ball on their own 40-yard line, Elway faced another tough third down situation, this one requiring twelve yards to get the first down. He drilled a 28-yard strike to Watson. That was, in essence, the ball game. A 33-yard field goal gave Denver a 23-20 win.

The Broncos weren’t given much of a chance in the Super Bowl, installed as a nine-point underdog to the Giants in Pasadena. The game is most remembered for the way New York took over the line of scrimmage in the second half and won decisively, 39-20. Less remembered is that Denver spent the first half keeping the favorites on the ropes.

After an early field goal, Elway then ran for one touchdown and then hit Johnson on a 54-yard pass to put Denver on the one-yard line, already holding a 10-7 lead. But those red zone problems that they’d flirted with against New England and Cleveland, finally came back to bite in a big way. The inability to run inside against the great Giant defense resulted in a goal-line stand, a botched field goal and ultimately set up a New York safety on a later possession when Denver couldn’t flip the field.

Even though the Broncos led 10-9 at the half, the game quickly got away from them in the third quarter. They didn’t score again until they trailed 33-10 in the fourth quarter.

It was still a breakthrough year for the 1986 Denver Broncos, the first of three Super Bowl trips in a four-year span. The season still produced the great moment of Elway’s career and one of the most famous drives in NFL history. The only thing it missed was the Super Bowl trophy.