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Getting There the Hard Way

The Broncos were goners until John Elway pulled off an OT win over Cleveland

Posted: Tuesday September 11, 2007 3:27PM; Updated: Tuesday September 11, 2007 4:31PM
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By Rick Telander

This story originally appeared in the Jan. 19, 1987 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Have you ever been mean to a nice old dog? Did you sit there with a tail-wagging mongrel at your knee and kindly offer him a meaty bone, hold it barely in front of the pooch's eager snout and at the last instant, just after his head lunged forward but before his teeth clicked shut, pull the bone away? Have you? Just for fun?

Then you've been John Elway, the Denver Bronco quarterback who yanked the bone from the mouth of the Cleveland Dawgs, er, Browns, 23-20 in overtime, for the AFC Championship before 79,915 stunned fans in Cleveland Stadium on Sunday. No, let's clarify this metaphor. Elway didn't just pull victory from the Browns' mouth. He ripped the thing from halfway down their throat.

The game was over. The Browns had won and the Broncos had lost. It was that simple. But then, with 5:32 remaining and Denver trailing 20-13, Elway led his team 98 yards down the field on as dramatic a game-saving drive as you'll ever see. It was the way Elway must have dreamed it while growing up the son of a football coach, the rifle-armed youngster and his doting father talking over the breakfast table about how to pick defenses apart.

Playing on unfriendly turf, generating offense where there had been precious little before, Elway ran, passed, coaxed and exhorted his team in magnificent style. Finally, with 39 seconds left and the ball on the Browns' five-yard line, he found Mark Jackson slanting over the middle in the end zone and hit him with a touchdown bullet. After that, the overtime was a mere formality. Elway took the Broncos 60 yards this time, giving Rich Karlis field goal position at the Cleveland 15-yard line and a sweet piece of advice: "It's like practice." Karlis's 33-yard field goal, his third of the afternoon, cut through the Browns like a knife.

Only a few minutes earlier, back in regulation, when the home team still had that big seven-point lead, nobody in the delirious Cleveland throng could have imagined such a nightmarish turn of events. Browns wide receiver Brian Brennan had just made it 20-13 by twisting safety Dennis Smith into a bow tie on a 48-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Bernie Kosar, a play that seemed destined to go straight into the NFL archives. Super slow motion, voice of doom narrating: "On a frigid afternoon a short, curly-haired young Catholic lad from Boston College snatched glory from the ominous skies over Lake Erie and presented it to this desperate city of rust and steel. . . ." Brennan was Dwight Clark making "the Catch" against the Dallas Cowboys to send the 49ers on to Super Bowl XVI. He was a vivid canvas to be placed in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Hell, he was the glue-fingered kid who caught the Hail Mary bomb against the University of Miami in 1984 to earn Doug Flutie a Heisman Trophy, wasn't he? Well, no, that was Gerard Phelan.

Nonetheless, Brennan sure looked to be the hero of this game. The Broncos misplayed Mark Moseley's ensuing knuckleball kickoff and downed it at their own two-yard line. There was no way they were going to drive 98 yards and score a touchdown. No way. On its two previous fourth-quarter possessions Denver had moved just nine and six yards, respectively.

The Broncos' only touchdown drive had been a mere 37-yarder set up by a fumble recovery. Otherwise they had gotten only two short-range field goals from Karlis, a 19-yarder in the second quarter following an interception and a 24-yarder late in the third. To make matters infinitely worse, Elway had a bad left ankle, and the Browns had a ferocious, yapping defense. And straight behind them was the Dawg Pound, the east end-zone section where fans wore doghouses on their heads and bellowed for their Dawgs to treat Denver like a fire hydrant. Even from this distance the Broncos were amazed at the insane howling of the Pound.

"I just waited for guys to run into me," said left tackle Dave Studdard. "I could not hear."

It didn't matter. Using hand signals and a silent count, Elway began moving his team.

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