Green Bay manufactured some incentive of its own, most of it derived from the media's focusing on Elway's quest to win a Super Bowl after three washouts. Just as they had seethed over the media attention surrounding New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells's impending move to the New York Jets before last year's Super Bowl, the Packers again convinced themselves they were being overshadowed. "We've heard all about poor John Elway," defensive tackle Santana Dotson scoffed three days before the game. "We've all very touched. But, hey, that's the classic pregame story. As long as we're the focus of the postgame story, that's cool."
Sorry, Santana. History will show that this was Elway's week of glory. Sure, his stats were wimpy. He threw for only 123 yards, didn't complete a pass to a wideout until Ed McCaffrey's 36-yard catch-and-run midway through the third quarter and blew a chance to build on a seven-point lead by throwing an end zone interception to free safety Eugene Robinson with 11 seconds left in the third quarter. But Elway carried the day with his poise. "That was the ultimate win, there's no question," he said. "There have been a lot of things that go along with losing three Super Bowls and playing for 14 years and being labeled as a guy who has never been on a winning Super Bowl team."
Remember how shaky Elway had looked at the beginning of his last Super Bowl appearance, against the 49ers in January 1990, when he threw his first pass into the ground and the Broncos went on to lose 55-10? After that game he and wide receiver Michael Young, now Denver's director of corporate sales, were the last players to leave the locker room. When Young asked Elway if he was O.K., Elway shook his head no. "They'll never; ever forgive me for this," he said, referring to the fans in Colorado.
This time Elway was as steady as the jets that buzzed the stadium during his introduction. He dismissed the Robinson interception from his mind immediately, and when he strutted onto the field with 3:27 left, the score tied at 24 and the ball on the Green Bay 49, he was in control and confident. "I looked at John before he took the field, and he had this huge smile on his face," Jeff Lewis, Denver's third-string quarterback, said after the game. "You could see it in his eyes; he was ready. It was one of those times you just have to stop yourself and watch the best quarterback ever do his thing."
It helped that the Broncos' offensive line, despite being the league's lightest, had worn down the Packers defenders—particularly mammoth nosetackle Gilbert Brown, who was being moved around like a giant beanbag chair. "He was lying down out there," Denver center Tom Nalen said of Brown. "We thought he was hurt. But he was just tired." Tired of watching Davis whiz past him, no doubt. Still, it was Elway's game to pull out, a chance for the quarterback with the most victories in NFL history to win the big one, finally. Put some points on the board, have them hold up, and all would be forgiven and forgotten.
On his biggest pass of the game, Elway made a perfect delivery, throwing a quick toss to fullback Howard Griffith that went for 23 yards and gave Denver a first-and-goal at the eight with two minutes remaining. That set up Davis's winning one-yard touchdown run, which the Pack conceded on a second-down play with 1:45 left in a futile attempt to get the ball back with enough time to win. (Mistakenly thinking it was first down, Holmgren, with only two timeouts left, feared the Broncos might run down the clock and kick a field goal in the closing seconds.) "John makes mistakes; he is human after all," Broncos receiver Rod Smith would say later. "But you never see fear in his eyes. He's like a linebacker with a good arm."
Even when that golden right arm was being used to hoist a few beers, Elway was zeroed in on the upcoming game. On the first two nights after the Broncos arrived in San Diego, Elway, Lewis and Bubby Brister, Denver's No. 2 quarterback, commandeered a limousine to take them around town. At several bars Elway elected to remain in the limo, alone with his thoughts. "One time I stayed in the car with him," Lewis said, "and he was so focused, it was amazing. He said, 'I can't wait for this game. Before the other Super Bowls, I really didn't grasp how big they were. But I've never been this ready for a game in my life.' "
He was so loose that his wife, Janet, was unnerved. "I keep waiting for him to snap at me, to end a conversation abruptly, but he's still so loose and happy," she said four days before the game. "That's not like him; he usually saves his happiness for afterward. One of his former teammates, Keith Bishop, was looking for Super Bowl tickets, and a radio station in Texas was giving away tickets to whoever could get the most famous person to call. So John called the radio station for Keith, and Keith won the contest because John's probably the most famous person there is this week." (Note to Janet: Monica Lewinsky might beg to differ.)
Still, Janet was concerned enough about John's preparation that she kept her distance in the days leading up to the game. Alas, sex before competition is not the Elway way. "Not in our family, it's not," Janet said. "But if he wins, I'm sure he'll deserve any favor he wants." That may help explain the huge smile that was plastered on John's face as he hoisted the Lombardi trophy over his head on the victor podium.
It's a measure of how far Denver has come that Elway, who once had to carry his team, didn't have to be spectacular in his finest hour. Shanahan built these Broncos to reflect his own personality—resilient, businesslike and fearless. Strong safety Tyrone Braxton, whose first-quarter interception set up Denver's second touchdown, knew the significance of the victory extended beyond the realm of Elway. "It means everything," Braxton said, "not only for this team but for the past Broncos teams, all the way back to 1960 [the year the franchise played its first season in the AFL].
We're not a city of losers anymore, and we won one for the AFC. It's been a long, hard road for all of us