Still, as any Cleveland Browns fan will tell you, Elway is like a magazine salesman—he's hard to keep off your doorstep. Back Denver came on an 80-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive, this one featuring 1) a fumbled snap that Elway scooped up and fired for a first down, 2) a converted fourth-and-four that went for 26 yards and 3) innumerable fingernails and shoestrings that somehow slipped through Houston's gasping defenders. At one point, Houston defensive end William Fuller was so frustrated that he sat down in the middle of the field and didn't get up for two minutes. Now Denver trailed by one.
Finally, and for once, Denver's defense held. Now came Greg Montgomery's first punt of the afternoon. Now the plea by Kubiak. Who better to answer it than Elway? "Nobody," said Moon later.
The first play was planned, a .22-caliber bullet to wideout Michael Young for 22 yards, but the rest "were all John improvising," marveled Denver center Dave Widell. And almost nothing worked. On first down from the 24-yard line, Elway threw an incompletion. The Broncos then went nowhere on second and third, and Elway faced a fourth-and-six at the 28. He set up, abandoned that setup and set out for a very bright orange first-down marker on the east sideline. If he got there before Houston's disagreeable linebacker, Lamar Lathon, Denver's season could go on. If he didn't, it was over. He got there. Nervy.
Again, on first, second and third downs, Denver was stifled. Now it was fourth-and-10, still 65 yards from a touchdown, only 59 ticks to go, Denver's third fourth-and-the-season down of the day. Coronary specialists turned on their beepers. Every alley Elway looked down, there was a guy standing with a gun. The crowd at Mile High Stadium was beside itself. On the scoreboard, in 15-foot-high letters, read a simple comment: THIS IS TENSE.
But who is better in a furnace than Elway? He took the shotgun snap, stepped up in the pocket, eluded the fingers of poor Mr. Fuller and darted forward as if he might run. Ahead of him were two Johnsons. The one in orange was Denver receiver Vance. The one in blue was Houston cornerback Richard. One knew what Elway would do. One didn't. Richard ran toward Elway, refusing to give up another maddening first-down scramble. Vance took off madly toward the sideline. Elway tossed the ball on the run. "Not my prettiest pass," he said, "but it got there." When it did, Vance turned upfield and saw a very pretty sight—open pasture. Forty-four yards later, Denver had a first down at the Houston 21.
"I was soooo close," said Fuller. "Then all of a sudden, boom, he gets the ball over there. Basically, that was all she wrote." Widell was as giddy as a schoolboy. "Who else in this league makes that play on fourth-and-10?" he giggled. "Who else?"
One play later, Treadwell trotted onto the field for a 28-yard field goal try with 16 seconds remaining that could make Son of The Drive a legend. Off came Wood. On came Koob to hold. Unfortunately, as the snap came toward Kubiak, it was low, dangerously low. It's funny how sports can be so wonderfully symmetrical. A guy asking to be bailed out can suddenly bail himself out. Kubiak did not catch it so much as he smothered it, trapped it. As Treadwell started forward with his right leg, Kubiak somehow righted the ball. Treadwell double-clutched, Kubiak spun the laces, and the ball went screaming off, obviously unhappy but nonetheless above the crossbar and through the uprights. Somebody call Sotheby's. Works of art can be copied. Denver 26, Houston 24.
Wood and Koob approached each other on the sideline. They grinned and hugged the way good friends will, forehead-to-forehead, each with his right hand on the back of the other's neck. Roomies don't need many words.
On the other sideline, the Oilers—five straight years in the playoffs and still only two wins—looked like they had been marbled. "We knew Elway would take it upon himself to run all over the park," a still disbelieving Houston coach Jack Pardee said following the game. "We expected it. And he still outran us." Then there was Moon, who could not have played better in a hundred Saturdays. "He's done this time and time before," Moon said, droop-faced. "But to have it done to you, it's really a shock."
Across the way, the demolition engineer was indulging himself a little. "I don't know of a better feeling for a quarterback to have," Elway said. "If there is one, I'd like to feel it. Maybe I will...in a couple of weeks." First, it's Buffalo on Sunday for Elway's fourth AFC title game in six seasons. Count him out if you want, but he hasn't lost one yet.