The Best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game

Broncos AFC Championship

Conference Championship Weekend is arguably the most important non-Super Bowl week of the NFL season. The number of participants in the playoffs has dwindled to a mere four teams remaining at the time of this writing; with the winners of these two conference title games advancing to the Super Bowl, the stakes cannot be higher. For the Denver Broncos, no stage of the playoffs has been as fruitful as Conference Championship Weekend. In their 43-year history of AFC Championship Game appearances, January 11th, 1987’s conference finals appearance stands a cut above. Soon recognized as one of the NFL’s most memorable games, this overtime win is the best Denver Broncos AFC Championship appearance.

The Best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game

Dating back to their first appearance in January 1978, Denver has played in 10 AFC Championships. Winning eight of these games, the Broncos have made an appearance in eight separate Super Bowls, tied for second-most all-time with the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately for Broncos Country, less than one third of such games have come after the turn of the century. They outscored their six opponents over these ten games by a margin of 235 to 200. This is a significant improvement over their 30-point margin over 16 games in the Divisional Round.

Setting the Stage

In 1986, quarterback Bernie Kosar, a second-year passer, led the Cleveland Browns to a 12-4 record, their best record in the Super Bowl Era to this day. They were top five in points, top ten in yards, and middling in defense. As such, the 1986 Cleveland Browns finished with the first seed and tied for the second-best record in the entire league. Unfortunately, after this loss neither Cleveland nor Kosar ever earned 12 wins in a season again.

Opposite them were the 1986 Denver Broncos, led by quarterback John Elway in his fourth season. His 1986 campaign unfortunately represented a slight regression from his 1985 campaign. Nonetheless, Elway managed to lead his team to a top ten finish in points for and yardage allowed, while middling in offensive yardage and points allowed. Yet to have truly established his stardom or legacy in the league, Elway’s poise and grit in this contest forged his identity—and that of the franchise—for years to come.

The Best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game

In the first 54 minutes and 28 seconds of the game, the 11-5 Broncos traded blows with the 12-4 Browns, exchanging the lead twice and tying the score twice as well. Bernie Kosar had played an impressive game, throwing two scores in the process. He had, however, turned the ball over on one of his signature plays (one that has become popular today) in a no-look pass. Combining Kosar’s respectable performance with an adequate day on the ground for the Cleveland offense, they were able to score more consistently than Denver. Denver’s scoring output consisted entirely of fifth-year kicker Rich Karlis’s bare right foot, Denver Broncos third all-time leading rusher Sammy Winder, and a rushing score from Gerald Willhite.

The Broncos defense intercepted Kosar early on in the game but were victims to the momentum shift in the second half following Elway’s late second-quarter interception. After an exchange of second-half field goals, the Browns broke the tie with a passing score that all but broke the hopes of Broncos Country. Lining up under center in plus territory on the 48, Koser had four receivers, two on either side of the formation, and a runner offset behind him. The clock dropped below six minutes and Kosar dropped back, heaving a pass high and to the left into the hands of Brian Brennan.

Brennan then shed a Dennis Smith tackling effort and raced into the endzone to take the lead, 19-13. Mark Moseley’s P.A.T. extended the lead to seven and when he kicked the ball off to Gene Lang, Lang botched the return and downed the ball at the one-and-a-half yard-line. 98 and a half yards to go with five minutes and 32 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Drive

To center Keith Bishop, however, they had them right where they wanted them.

A pedestrian passing effort from Elway in the first 55 minutes of the game had not seen Elway find the endzone. After this effort and below-average performances in his three prior playoff games, this 98-and-a-half-yard hike nonetheless seemed insurmountable. What happened next, though, was not only truly magical but one of the most memorable moments in NFL history.

Elway or the Highway

Adding eight yards on the ground from Winder and 20 on the ground himself, Elway engineered this seemingly impossible drive down the field. He completed two-thirds of his passes for 88 yards in the process, eventually scrambling for nine yards and sliding out at the five, leaving 42 seconds on the clock for third-and-one. Drenched in mud, Elway then concluded what would become known as “The Drive” with a five-yard touchdown strike to rookie wide receiver Mark Jackson.

They lined up in shotgun with three receivers to the boundary and a fourth with a short split from the left side of the formation. With a back to his left, Elway motioned Jackson from the right to left and called for the snap. Jackson’s momentum allowed him to bait Mark Harper into biting on a presumptive slot fade to the back pylon. A few yards from the endzone, Jackson cut inside and Elway launched a frozen rope into his hands to set up the game-tying point-after try! A successful P.A.T. and field goal in overtime later, and the Broncos were on the way to their second franchise Super Bowl appearance— Elway’s first.

Aftermath of the Best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game

Although they lost handily in Super Bowl XXI, the Broncos established a moment in NFL’s history with a legacy unlike any other. It also served as the birth of John Elway’s own legacy as a comeback kid without as poor a reputation in the postseason. Above all else, however, it offered Broncos Country the all-time best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game a mere 27 years into franchise history!

For Cleveland, the specter of this harrowing defeat haunted them through the following AFC Championship, where they once again lost to the Broncos on a last-minute heartbreaker. “The Fumble” would not be the end of Cleveland’s sorrows in the postseason, unfortunately. In fact, following the best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game in history, the Browns only made the playoffs six times in over thirty subsequent seasons. They only made the conference finals two more times in that same span.

Denver, on the other hand, had a serious future on its hands. Since this game, Denver has had 16 playoff seasons. This is the same number of seasons Cleveland finished last in their division in that same period. With Elway alone, the franchise went on to win 12 of his ensuing 18 playoff games. This includes back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998. Six Super Bowl appearances followed the best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game in history, making this moment a true turning point for the franchise.

The Last Word

For the fourth consecutive year, Broncos Country is forced to endure watching the Kansas City Chiefs not only play in the AFC Championship, but host it as well. With a new general manager in place, the future of the Broncos is slightly less nebulous. That said, the team and its fans have just finished their fifth consecutive year of stark and utterly unnerving disappointment. If the team is to return to the AFC Championship any time soon, they will need to find the grit within themselves that John Elway and the 1986 Broncos dug down deep to discover against the Browns.

The prospect of stability for the first time in many years has a portion of Broncos Country relying on the patience they know is necessary. For others, it is still an impatiently-awaited element to the identity of this team. If the youngest team in football wants to play in games capable of replacing the January 11th, 1987 thriller as the best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game in history, they will need to give everything they have week in and week out.

The silver lining lies in conflating this necessary patience with an understanding of just how right Keith Bishop was before “The Drive” got underway. The 1986 Broncos were not supposed to beat Cleveland, but they did it anyway. They were not supposed to be able to drive 98 and a half yards, but they did it anyway. This game was not supposed to be the best Denver Broncos AFC Championship Game ever, but it was anyway.

John Elway’s on-field legacy was, for all intents and purposes, born on January 11th, 1987.

Who’s to say the next Denver Broncos on-field legacy can’t be born on a late Sunday in January 2022?

Main photo:
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