It's been 10 years since John Elway and the 1997 Denver Broncos win that elusive Super Bowl Title. In celebration of that achievement, we'll go week by week through the 1997 season and remember the wins and losses, the highs and lows, the good and the bad of a Super Bowl Championship season.
The Broncos were undefeated(4-0) when they traveled East to take on former coach Dan Reeves and the winless Falcons. Reeves was trying to rebuild a perennial loser while the Broncos seemed to be a team of destiny. Little did anyone know that these two teams would meet again 16 months later in Super Bowl XXXIII. For now, it was the Georgia Dome and a Week 5 match up that ended up being a lot more than the Broncos bargained for. Come with me back to 1997 as we "Remember A Title - 10 Years Later".
What should have been a Denver Broncos blowout of the Atlanta Falcons and Dan Reeves - the team's former coach whose tumultuous relationship with Shanahan and Elway was chronicled in soap-operaesque fashion this past week - instead turned into their most competitive game of the season. The Broncos won by a 29-21 margin Sunday, but only after almost losing a 23-point lead before 48,211 fans at the Georgia Dome.
``We didn't stay focused,'' Broncos defensive tackle Michael Dean Perry said. ``We didn't have that killer instinct that we should have to be a championship team. When we've got guys down like that, we should get them by the jugular. And we didn't do that.
``After Mike said his (postgame) speech, if you didn't know any better, you could have sworn we lost the game. That was the mood of the team. We won and we're happy about that, but we're not satisfied. We want to play a lot better than that.''
While the Broncos improved to 5-0 for the first time since 1986, a mediocre second half killed much of the team's momentum heading into next Monday's game against New England (4-0). Denver registered only three first downs and - in what has become an all-too-common problem - gave up big plays on defense that allowed Atlanta (0-5) to remain close.
There was a 57-yard run by Atlanta rookie Byron Hanspard that led to a 3-yard touchdown pass from Chris Chandler to Bert Emanuel, cutting Denver's lead to 23-14 in the third quarter. The Broncos also surrendered a 47-yard touchdown to running back Jamal Anderson, who caught a screen pass and rambled past four Denver defenders en route to the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
In total, the Broncos actually were outrushed, 112 yards to 101, by a team that entered with the NFL's second-worst ground game (69-yard average).
``I'm disappointed,'' said Shanahan, whose defense also allowed a 47-yard reception by wide receiver Terance Mathis that led to a Falcons touchdown just before halftime. ``We had the concentration level going early in the game . . . We faltered a little bit, and it's something we're going to have to work on in the next few days.''
The defense wasn't the only unit in a malaise. After posting 23 unanswered points in less than 1 1/2-quarters, the Broncos' offense struggled against a Falcons team that entered as a 12-point underdog.
``Good thing we jumped out early on them because somewhere in the second or third quarter, we lost intensity,'' Broncos wide receiver Willie Green said. ``Luckily, we picked it back up.''
Green deserves some of the credit, catching a 7-yard pass for a first down late in the fourth quarter that let Denver run out the clock. And the Broncos did piece together one impressive drive in the third quarter - highlighted by a 17-yard touchdown pass from Elway to backup fullback Detron Smith - to open a 29-14 lead.
But the offense looked nothing like it did earlier
in the game, when Denver needed less than two minutes to take a 7-0 lead.
Elway - who completed 18 of a season-high 32 passes for 243 yards with three touchdowns and one interception - caught Atlanta linebacker Jesse Tuggle trying to cover tight end Shannon Sharpe. Such a mismatch is equivalent to the Dream Team playing Angola.
Sharpe zipped past Tuggle to catch a career-long 65-yard touchdown pass with 13:18 remaining in the first quarter. Sharpe finished with season-highs in catches (six) and yards (119).
After Denver's defense stuffed the Falcons for a loss of 3 yards on their subsequent series, Elway was at it again. A 10-yard touchdown pass to Green capped an eight-play, 55-yard drive.
But after that score, Shanahan faced an unusual coaching decision. Kicker Jason Elam strained his hip flexor - an injury that hindered him all last season - and was unable to continue playing. That left Elway and punter Tom Rouen as the only viable replacements.
Because neither will remind anyone of Jim Turner (or maybe even Ted Turner), Shanahan decided to eschew any field-goal or extra-point attempts and instead try for two-point conversions after touchdowns. The Broncos were successful after both second-quarter scores thanks to rushes by tailback Terrell Davis, who also scored a touchdown on a 10-yard scamper midway through the second quarter.
``It's never happened to me before,'' Shanahan said of losing his kicker. ``It (Elam's injury) was not only relative to field goals and extra points, but also on the kickoff coverage.''
At that point, it didn't seem like the Broncos would miss Elam or fullback Howard Griffith, who suffered a first-quarter knee injury that is expected to sideline him for a month. But the Falcons started playing with the grit for which Reeves himself is known.
Atlanta's defense began heavily blitzing Elway and did an effective job of stopping Davis, whose string of four consecutive 100-yard games was snapped with his 79-yard outing on 23 carries.
``They did a good job against our running game and really started coming after us,'' said Elway, who was sacked twice in the third quarter. ``We weren't able to make some plays.''
The Falcons' offense also played respectably even when Chandler was knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter with a sprained ankle. Backup Billy Joe Tolliver completed six of nine passes for 85 yards and a touchdown.
In fact, Atlanta's comeback was impressive enough that the game itself became the most important thing Sunday - not such trivial matters as whether Reeves would shake hands with Shanahan (he did) and Elway (he didn't).
``I have the utmost respect for Dan Reeves,'' said Shanahan, who was fired by Reeves as Denver's offensive coordinator midway through the 1991 season amid allegations of secretly plotting plays with Elway (a charge both deny).
``Dan Reeves has taken this organization to three Super Bowls in the seven years I was there. He will do a great job in this town. I think that was evident in the way they came out and fought today.''