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"In the huddle after that kickoff to the two he smiled—I couldn't believe it—and he said, 'If you work hard, good things are going to happen,' " says wide receiver Steve Watson. "And then he smiled again."
The only other people smiling just then were the Browns and everybody else in northern Ohio. "We're a city that's been kicked around a lot," owner Art Modell said earlier in the week, obviously tired of hearing all those Cleveland jokes over the years. "And winning on the football field does something for our spirit. It binds this city, black and white, rich and poor. Hey, everybody needs a love affair."
And the biggest object of Clevelandic affection was Kosar, the storklike helmsman whose work afield reminds one of a gangling surgeon methodically carving some poor chap to shreds. So skilled had the 23-year-old Boardman, Ohio, native become in just his second NFL season that he seemed to have received a brain transplant from someone much older than he—a Hall of Fame quarterback, for instance. Indeed, it was hard to believe that Kosar was two weeks younger than Vinny Testaverde, the kid who replaced him at the University of Miami and is a senior there.
In this game, however, Kosar was to suffer the same fate that Testaverde did against Perm State in the Fiesta Bowl, when another championship was on the line. The man who led the NFL in interception avoidance this season threw two balls that were picked off and had a couple more bad passes dropped by defenders. Broncos assistant head coach Joe Collier had prepared a special defensive strategy to use against Kosar, a sneaky one that differed from the accepted method of attacking a young QB. In midweek reporters had tried to get Broncos defensive end Rulon Jones to spill the beans on the plan. "I can't tell you," he said. Would the plan be obvious during the game? "I don't want to say any more about it," quoth Jones.
After the game Jones confirmed what had become obvious. "We decided we wouldn't blitz," he said.
Indeed, Denver dropped seven or eight defenders into pass coverage and let its stunting linemen harass the relatively immobile Kosar. "We didn't get sacks," said Jones, who snared his team's only one. "But we got pressure."
They did, and Kosar quite often had nowhere to throw. "He was rattled because we had everybody covered," said Denver linebacker Ricky Hunley, who picked off a Kosar pass in the first quarter. "For him it was like knocking on a door and nobody's home."
Still—despite Kosar's shakiness, just four rushing first downs and a lost fumble—Cleveland had the game won. Running back Herman Fontenot had scored on a nifty six-yard pass reception in the first quarter, in which he left Denver safety Tony Lilly grasping at his shoelaces, and Moseley had added field, goals in the second and fourth quarters. Then came Brennan's miracle catch for the 20-13 lead late in the fourth, and the rest was up to the Dawgs, the Cleveland defense that got its name by barking at opponents. Until Denver's final drive the Dawgs had allowed the Broncos just 216 yards in total offense.
But now it was Elway's turn to growl. At midweek back in Denver, Elway had stood in a lightly falling snow at the Broncos' practice facility, casually eating an ice-cream bar, and shrugging off worries about his sprained ankle and the Cleveland defense. "I could play now if I had to," he said. And the defense? "There are no dominating teams in the NFL." What about the Giants? "Anybody can be beat." And the potential for bad weather in Cleveland? "The weather is all in your mind."
Indeed, as Elway set the Broncos forth on that fateful fourth-quarter drive, the swirling snow had stopped, and the cold, while real enough, didn't matter. The game was on the line. The season, too. Elway completed a short pass to Sammy Winder. Three plays later he broke from the pocket and ran for 11 yards and a first down. He sent a 22-yarder to Steve Sewell and followed with one for 12 yards to Watson. Three plays, three first downs and all of a sudden Denver had the ball on Cleveland's 40-yard line with 1:59 to go.