This One’s For John: The 1997 Denver Broncos Finally Climb The Mountaintop

As we sit midway through the 2013 NFL season, the Denver Broncos are coming off a bitter playoff disappointment and led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback looking for some redemption. The Kansas City Chiefs are an overachieving team with a stout defense and potent running game. They not only lead up the AFC West, but are arguably the best two teams in the AFC.

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If it feels like this a movie you’ve seen before, then you’re thinking of 1997, when the same dynamic unfolded. TheSportsNotebook’s series of sports history articles looks at the redemptive championship won by John Elway and the 1997 Denver Broncos.

Everything was about redemption for the 1997 Denver Broncos, both short-term and long-term. In the short-term, this was a team that had the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs and lost in a big upset at home to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the long-term, 37-year-old quarterback John Elway had yet to win a Super Bowl, was 0-3 in his three previous trips (1986, 1987 & 1989) and after the ’96 loss, looked ready to end his career with the “never won the big one” millstone hanging around his neck.

Denver had made a successful transition to a run-first offense though, with Terrell Davis running for over 1,700 yards and head coach Mike Shanahan’s blocking schemes enabling the Broncos to control tempo and use Elway’s experience to their advantage.

The offense also had first-team All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe. A rare combination of speed and power, Sharpe was the kind of tight end who could both extend a drive on third down or make a big play.

It added up the most prolific offense in the NFL, and the defense was a solid sixth in the league, led by two pass-rushing defensive ends in Neil Smith and Alfred Williams. The Broncos average victory margin of 11.6 ppg was the best in the game.

Denver beat AFC West rival Kansas City to open the season, started 6-0 and got to 9-1. Then the Chiefs took revenge with a 24-22 win, and the Broncos lost consecutive road games in Pittsburgh and San Francisco. Both were to teams that would make conference championship games, so none of the losses were anything to be ashamed of. But Kansas City set the bar high with a 13-3 record, and even though Denver’s 12-4 season was second-best in the AFC, it was only good for the #4 seed come playoff time.

The Broncos might have had to play on the first weekend of the postseason rather than get a bye, but they were able to exact some revenge over Jacksonville with a 42-17 win. Denver was now going to Kansas City in a game that, even though it was still the second round, was poised to produce the AFC champion.

On a cold January day in Middle America, it was a defensive battle, the kind the new-look Broncos were suited to win. Davis rushed for 101 yards, giving his team a running attack that the Chiefs could never get going. Denver took a 14-10 lead into the final minutes, and Kansas City’s last pass into the end zone from the Denver 20-yard line was batted away.

The record books tell us that the Steelers were a one-point favorite for the AFC Championship Game, and that the final score was 24-21. Those figures don’t adequately convey how much better Denver was in 1997–the point spread was likely deference to the homefield edge Pittsburgh had because of their status as a division champion. And the score is deceptively close.

Each team got a good running game going, with Davis and Pittsburgh’s Jerome Bettis going over 100 yards, but there was a world of difference between Elway and Steeler counterpart Kordell Stewart. Elway was efficient and threw a pair of second-quarter touchdowns that gave Denver a 24-14 halftime lead. Stewart threw three interceptions and his final TD pass with two minutes left was too late to matter, as Elway converted a big throw to Sharpe and ran out the clock.

The biggest test awaited at the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers had won the 1996 Super Bowl, had gone 13-3, manhandled the San Francisco 49ers in Candlestick Park to win the NFC title, and the Packers were decisive 11-point favorites.

Green Bay took the opening kickoff and immediately marched for a touchdown to take a 7-0 lead. Everyone was ready for the rout to be on in San Diego. But it was at this same venue ten years earlier that the Broncos got off to a fast start, scoring on the first possession and leading the Washington Redskins 10-0. The Broncos of 1987 were buried by 35 second-quarter points. The Broncos of 1997 didn’t have that much of a turnaround, but they did score 17 unanswered and took a 17-14 lead into halftime.

The Packers tied it with a third quarter field goal, the teams traded touchdowns and then Denver began its drive for the game-winner. Davis was dominant all game long, rushing 30 times for 157 yards and he took it in from a yard out with 1:45 left. Packer coach Mike Holmgren had instructed his defense to let Davis score, so as to ensure enough time for a game-tying drive, but given the way Davis ran, it’s unlikely the coaching gambit mattered.

Denver led 31-24 and it was in the defense’s hands, but Brett Favre had won his third straight MVP award and the Packer quarterback had more than enough time to make this the first Super Bowl to go overtime. But the Broncos had kept Favre off-balance all day. While he threw for 256 yards, the 25-for-42 passing was inefficient, and though Green Bay pushed it to midfield, the Denver defense forced Favre into the final incompletions that ended the game.

Davis was rightfully named Super Bowl MVP, but Denver owner Pat Bowlen spoke to the heart of his franchise, his city–indeed to football fans everywhere–when he took the trophy and said “This one’s for John.”