Nine seasons later, the Broncos would return to the game’s biggest stage, this time facing QB Phil Simms and a dominant “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” defense of the New York Giants.
The game did not turn out in the Broncos’ favor but further showed the franchise had grown from a Cinderella team their previous appearance to one that could challenge for the throne on an annual basis.
Broncos’ 1986 Season
Again, unlike the 1977 team, this Broncos team was not going to sneak up on anyone.
Prior to Super Bowl XII, the Broncos had just three winning seasons in their 16 years of existence. Between that game and Super Bowl XXI, the team had just one losing season to go along with four playoff appearances.
One major reason for the team’s success previously unavailable in the first Super Bowl appearance? John Albert Elway, Jr.
The young QB from Stanford, in his fourth NFL season, had led the Broncos to two playoff appearances in his first three years, and helped the team open up to a 6-0 start in his fourth.
He also had plenty of help from a staunch defense that featured the likes of Rulon Jones, Karl Mecklenburg, and Dennis Smith, a unit that finished first in NFL rushing defense.
The season was ultimately a testament to Elway’s ability, as he didn’t really have a true number one receiving threat nor a 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield, but he threw nearly 3,500 yards and ran just shy of 300 yards. He was an early example of “must see TV.”
While the Broncos would ultimately lose the Super Bowl, they would still find themselves a place in postseason immortality for a game-saving sequence in the AFC Championship game.
Following a close win in the divisional round over the New England Patriots, the Broncos had their hands full with the Cleveland Browns in the conference championship game, leading to an overtime contest. What led to the overtime is what NFL fans and historians have remembered for decades.
The Broncos had muffed a kickoff after trailing 20-13 that pinned the offense at the two-yard line with just over five-and-a-half minutes remaining in regulation.
Elway then orchestrated a miraculous drive, using his arm and legs, completing six-of-eight passes for 78 yards, including the game-tying pass to Mark Jackson from the Cleveland five-yard line, and 20 yards on the ground (minus an eight-yard sack).
The Broncos would win the coin toss in OT and win the game with a field goal, cementing their second Super Bowl appearance.
Super Bowl XXI Recap
Despite the excitement of the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history, the Broncos were heavy underdogs to the juggernaut New York Giants, who just finished a 14-2 regular season and dominated their way through the playoffs with a 49-3 divisional victory over the San Francisco 49ers and a 17-0 shutout of the Washington Redskins.
The Broncos appeared ready for the challenge at the beginning of the contest, though, and weren’t simply going to bow down to the 9.5 point favorites,
The team opened up the game with a 3-0 lead and then answered a subsequent New York Giant’s touchdown with one of their own to go up 10-7 on an Elway QB draw.
In the second quarter, a solid 28-yard kick return and 54-yard completion from Elway to Vance Johnson had the Broncos in prime decision to go up another score, working their way up to the Giants’ one-yard line.
Despite the field position, the team would get held up by the fierce Giants’ defense and be forced to kick a field goal. And that, as they say, is when the wheels began to fall off.
Kicker Rich Carlis would miss the 23-yard chip shot, giving the ball to the Giants, A few series later, Elway would be sacked in the end zone for a safety and the score at halftime was Broncos 10, Giants 9.
Despite the Broncos lead, however, the momentum was clearly in the favor of the Giants.
The Giants would show the world why they were heavy favorites in the second half, scoring 26 unanswered points and outscoring the Broncos 30-10 overall in the half. The Broncos wouldn’t find the end zone again until just north of a minute remaining, down 39-13, when Elway found Vance Johnson for a deep, garbage-time touchdown.
The game would be remembered for a few pop culture historical moments, such as an early appearance of the gatorade shower and QB Phil Simms being the first player on camera to use the “I’m going to Disney World!” exclamation after winning.
It would also, unfortunately, be the game that started the trend away from the Broncos being a gritty underdog team to being a team who couldn’t win the big one, as they lost both Super Bowl XXII and XXIV in relatively ugly fashions.
Yet, despite the loss, despite the pain that would come of always being invited to the party but never being crowned prom king, the Broncos will still have a place in postseason history.
Outside of the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, few will reminisce over the game, but fans and analysts everywhere throughout the country and beyond will always be made aware of “The Drive”, a moment that set the standard for “clutch” in the NFL.