Vance Johnson had lain awake nearly all Saturday night, vacantly watching television, while in his mind's eye he envisioned the circus catches he would make the next day for the Denver Broncos in their AFC playoff game against New England. But this play was not one he had pictured. For one thing, Johnson had not imagined its being this noisy. With three seconds left in the third quarter, the din from the stands in Mile High Stadium had become so loud that Johnson had to look way down the line of scrimmage at quarterback John Elway to see when the ball would be snapped, and when he did, he saw that linebacker Don Blackmon of the Patriots had started to move too soon. "I knew right then we had a free one," Johnson said later.
With four yards to go for a first down, Elway had altered the timing of his signal cadence, hoping to pull someone across the line prematurely and draw a flag. The pass Elway had called in the huddle was designed to go to either the tight end or the fullback circling out to the right side; Johnson was nothing more than a decoy. "Vance wasn't even in the rotation," Elway would say, "but I knew where I was going as soon as I saw Blackmon offside. I had Vance on a go route, and I just let it fly."
The instant the flag went up, New England's defense did a curious thing. "We all froze when our guy jumped off-side because we thought it was going to be a dead play," said cornerback Raymond Clayborn. "We were all kind of shocked when it wasn't."
Cornerback Ernest Gibson had moved instinctively at the same instant that Johnson did, but as the two men neared the goal line, Johnson turned and came back to the ball, which had been slightly underthrown, while Gibson kept going. Johnson, who was once the NCAA long-jump champion at Arizona, leaped backward, caught the ball and landed indelicately on the seat of his pants in the end zone. His catch gave Denver its final lead in what was to become a 22-17 victory.
If the play stunned the Patriots, it shouldn't have. Elway had been trying all day to throw long, hoping to keep New England's aggressive defensive backs on their heels. He was only 13 for 32 for the day but attempted seven passes of 35 yards or more and completed three of them. "If we didn't go deep, we felt like they'd sit on our receivers in that intermediate area about 15 yards out," said Broncos coach Dan Reeves. "Their defensive backs are so good that if you keep coming at them over and over with the same things, they're going to stick it down your throat."
The Broncos were determined to come out aggressively after having gone only .500 in their last 10 games and ending the regular season with a 41-16 loss to Seattle. Denver, despite having had a succession of fairly good teams, also had a legacy of five straight playoff defeats starting with a Super Bowl loss to Dallas in 1978; so it would not be overstating matters to say that the Broncos' confidence was not exactly mile high at the outset of the game. "There were a lot of players on our team who talked about it," said Reeves. "They felt we needed to get over the hump psychologically and get that first playoff win."
It didn't help that on Denver's third possession Elway tried to run the ball in from the four-yard line and was stopped a foot shy of the goal, then drew a five-yard penalty for slamming the ball to the ground when the officials told him he hadn't scored. It was another example of the immaturity that has kept Elway from becoming the great quarterback he was expected to be when Denver acquired him in 1983. "That's my biggest problem," he said later. "I'm my own worst enemy out there. When I want something too bad, sometimes I try too hard." After Elway lost three yards on a draw on the next play, Denver had to settle for a field goal by Rich Karlis.
Like Elway, New England quarterback Tony Eason was inconsistent, completing just 13 of 24 passes. But Eason had the singular advantage of being able to send wide receiver Stanley Morgan long when the Patriots needed a big play, and Morgan never failed him. When New England took the lead in the second quarter on a drive that consumed 87 yards in just 2:24, it was Morgan who did most of the damage with catches of 36 and 19 yards, the second for a touchdown that came as a result of a dazzling move that turned cornerback Steve Wilson inside out.
Up to that point neither team had been able to generate much of a running game, and as it turned out, New England never would. "We basically shut down the run and made them pass the ball," said Denver defensive end Rulon Jones. The Broncos, meanwhile, began handing the ball off occasionally to running back Sammy Winder and were able to take a 10-7 lead when Elway scrambled 22 yards to score on a broken pass play.
But Elway's scrambling ended almost as quickly as it had begun, when linebacker Andre Tippett landed heavily on his left ankle near the end of the first half, sending Elway limping off to the locker room. Though his ankle sprain wasn't bad enough to keep him out of the game, Elway's mobility was sufficiently limited in the second half that Denver was forced to rely more heavily on its running game.