SI Vault
Rick Telander
January 19, 1987
The Broncos were goners until John Elway pulled off an OT win over Cleveland
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January 19, 1987

Getting There The Hard Way

The Broncos were goners until John Elway pulled off an OT win over Cleveland

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Hey, this was almost too easy. The old pass master, Jack Elway, now the head guy at John's alma mater, couldn't in his wildest dreams have plotted a better scenario for his boy. But not so fast. After an incompletion on first down and an eight-yard sack on second, Denver had to call timeout. Third-and-long. So here's the play: Shotgun formation, Watson goes in motion, Jackson goes far enough down the left side to turn in for a first down. What actually happened: Watson went in motion, all right, and the snap deflected off him—three crucial plays, three crucial miscues—but Elway saved the day by getting control of the ball and passing 20 yards to Jackson for a first down at the Browns' 28.

Elway had entered the magic realm that few athletes enter. He was doing whatever he wanted. "We shut him down the whole game," said Browns defensive end Sam Clancy afterward, "and then in the last minutes he showed what he was made of."

Elway had shown flashes of his skill earlier in the game. Even on his bad ankle he had scrambled for 34 yards on one play, setting up Gerald Willhite's scoring plunge from the one when Cleveland had only 10 men on the field. Before that, Elway had punted from the shotgun. And, of course, there was his arm, the slingshot that nearly blew holes through his receivers. Now on this drive he was keeping his troublesome inner fire under control. "As a quarterback you have to remain calm," he said, smiling in the locker room afterward. "You can't be like a linebacker and go a hundred miles an hour."

Denver was approaching the goal line and the awesome din of the Dawg Pound. Biscuits thrown by fans coated that part of the field. "You could feel the things crunching under your feet when you ran," said receiver Vance Johnson. "Bones and everything were flying through the air. I've never, ever, seen so many biscuits."

A 14-yard pass to Sewell put the ball on the 14 and, after an incompletion, Elway broke cover and rushed for nine yards to the five. On third-and-one with 39 seconds left, he delivered the crusher. Dropping back, he fired a rocket to Jackson angling across from the left side into the end zone. "They were in a zone and the corner let Mark go," said Elway. "I tried to put it in the hole."

In the process, he nearly drilled a hole in Jackson's belly. "I felt like a baseball catcher," the 174-pound receiver said later. "That was a John Elway fastball, outside and low."

It was a touchdown, and after the extra point the score was tied 20-20. The drive, one of the finest ever engineered in a championship game, had been performed directly in the Browns' faces. There was no sneakiness about it; John Elway had simply shown what a man with all the tools could do. Tt was what everybody who had watched him enter the league as perhaps the most heralded quarterback since Joe Namath knew he could do. One was left with the distinct feeling that Elway would have marched his team down a 200-yard-or 300-yard-or five-mile-long field to pay dirt.

The Bronco drive left the city of Cleveland, the future home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in shock. If the stadium could have tuned in an appropriate rock number, it would have been It's All Over Now by the Rolling Stones.

Kosar could do nothing in overtime, and when the Browns punted after their first possession, everybody knew what was going to happen. Phil Collins should have provided the melody: In the Air Tonight.

Elway hit tight end Orson Mobley for 22 yards, and two plays later nailed Watson for 28 more. After three runs by Winder centered the ball at the Cleveland 15, Karlis came on and blasted the game-winning, dream-shattering field goal. The Broncos made a flesh pile of joy on the field while the Browns fans applauded bravely for Bernie and the Dawgs, who, after all, had given folks a good ride this season. Hatred for John Elway was almost palpable as people filed into the streets.

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