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Through 16 seasons, Elway always found a way to win

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ATLANTA (CNN/SI) -- Early in the fourth quarter of what is now finally, fittingly, John Elway's last game, the future Hall of Fame quarterback slipped under a block from his offensive line, leaned his aging frame into the end zone and scored the touchdown that would sink the Atlanta Falcons.

The image of him flat on the goal line during that warm January night in Miami -- as Super Bowl XXXIII and his playing career ticked joyously away -- is the perfect snapshot for the last page in Elway's playing days scrapbook.

A final drive. A back-breaking score. A triumphant smile.

If John Elway had never won his final two Super Bowls, if he had never made the postseason during the last years of his glorious career, he still would have been remembered as a winner, a player who could pull victory out of sure defeat. It is a fact that perhaps runs contrary to someone who lost his first three tries at a Super Bowl.

But it is as sure a fact as this: When the game was truly on the line, when it was be clutch or be crushed, no one the game has produced has been better than John Albert Elway.

No one, either, has won more games as a starting quarterback (148 in his 16 years in the NFL). His 47 fourth-quarter comebacks are a record, too, and he threw for more than 51,000 yards (second on the all-time list) and doled out 300 touchdown passes (third).

What has separated Elway, though -- from his early, scrambling years to his final years where he leaned on running back Terrell Davis -- is his competitiveness. His heart. His ability to find ways to win.

The 1986 AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns, of course, was the start of it all. The 99-yard game-tying touchdown drive -- if you hear "The Drive" when someone's talking NFL, this is the one that's being talked about -- remains legend in Denver and heartache in Cleveland.

"It definitely put me on the map," Elway said earlier this year. "With the situation, the weather the way it was and the nostalgia of being in that old stadium -- that was probably the highlight."

Now, of course, he has more meaningful wins to show. His Super Bowl breakthrough in 1998. And his super-efficient, 336-yard, two-touchdown (one passing, one running) follow-up in XXXIII that beat the Atlanta Falcons, 34-19, and gained him the MVP award.

Even though he toyed with the idea of coming back for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl win, the warm January night in Miami, with Elway scoring and smiling -- and winning -- was as perfect as sports endings come.

"They took Terrell out of the game and dared John to beat 'em," said Denver's Pro Bowl center, Tom Nalen, after the game. "Well, John beat 'em. It was weird. Even the defensive backs weren't really respecting him. I'd never seen that."

We'll never see it again.

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