The Denver Broncos third Super Bowl appearance was the first time they would be heavily favored to win. John Elway was the reigning NFL MVP after a dominant season and the Broncos steamrolled through the AFC playoffs to face an underdog Washington Redskins team that would start the first African-American quarterback in Super Bowl history. But to understand what made Denver a favorite in this game, we’ll need to take a look at their incredible season.
Broncos’ 1987 Season
The 1987 season was a strike-shortened year and three games were played by ‘scrubs’. Denver came out of that with a 2-1 record and John Elway would take over from scrub quarterback Ken Karcher. The strike happened between Weeks 3-6. Denver would start out 1-0-1 and then under Karcher they would end up 3-1-1 with back-to-back wins over AFC West rivals. Not a bad sub.
After knocking off a bit of rust, Elway and the Broncos offense went crazy winning six of their last seven games including a prime time thriller against the vaunted Chicago Bears defense in Week 10. After falling down to the Bears 14-0 early, Elway charged back three second quarter touchdowns. Then Denver would fall behind again in the second half. Down 29-24 in the fourth quarter, Elway would march his team down the field for the decisive touchdown to win the game 31-29. He finished with 341 yards passing and three touchdowns.
Denver’s 10-4-1 finish to the season ended up being the number one seed in the AFC. Elway as the MVP was at the peak of his game. Denver looked prime for another deep playoff run.
1987 Playoff Run
They wasted no time getting back to the AFC Championship game after steamrolling the Houston Oilers 34-10, but they would face a familiar foe in the Cleveland Browns. A year removed from “The Drive” the Browns were looking for revenge and redemption from last year’s humiliating home defeat at the hands of Elway.
Denver wasted little time asserting dominance streaking to a 21-3 lead at halftime, but Cleveland came out swinging in the second half with three touchdowns in the third quarter. They would tie things up early in the fourth before the Broncos took a large 38-31 lead and then that’s when Mile High Magic would strike.
After putting together a magnificent drive that would potential match the Broncos own “Drive” from the year prior, it looked like Ernest Byner would run straight into the end zone to tie the game up when disaster struck at the goal line. Denver would recover and take a safety to send themselves to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances.
Super Bowl XXII Recap
This game was a bit more special to me at the time, because as a budding Broncomaniac I also had a step-dad who was a huge Washington Redskins fan. He was a blue collar guy and that team back in the early 80s was just that kind of team. A huge fan of John Riggins and then Timmy Smith, my old man was always a fan of the underdog nature of his favorite team back then.
However, my 9 year-old self only saw that the Broncos were favorited by a field goal and John Elway was obviously a stud who could do no wrong. Sadly, I talked a lot of smack all week and that would earn me some come-uppin’s on game day. More on that later.
Washington that year was beleaguered by injury at the quarterback position and had finally settled on Doug Williams for the playoffs. That after Williams had played sporadically throughout the year with snaps in Weeks 1-2, 10-11, and in Week 15. That had to play in the Broncos being favored heading into this game, but Williams showed up in January in historic ways.
After dispatching the heavily-favored Chicago Bears on the road, they dominated the Minnesota Vikings to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
Everything for Denver seemed to go right according to plan with John Elway firing a deep pass 56-yards to Ricky Nattiel for the quickest touchdown in Super Bowl history up to that point and would go into the second quarter up 10-0 over Washington. Then all hell broke loose and Denver’s top ranked defense also seemed to vanish.
Washington’s five touchdowns in that quarter were on mostly long plays: 80 yards pass, 27 yards pass, 58 yards rush, 50 yard pass, and an 8 yard pass. Their 35-10 lead was completely insurmountable as they went into cruise control for an eventual 42-10 championship.
The brutal second quarter led Doug Williams to a historic Super Bowl MVP with a 340 yards, 4 touchdown day. However, the incredible stat lines don’t end there. Timmy Smith put up 204 yards and two touchdowns on just 22 carries — also MVP-worthy numbers and Ricky Sanders snagged 9 passed for 192 yards and two touchdowns — again, also MVP-worthy numbers. Just a brutal day all around for Denver and a harbinger for worse days to come for that 1980s team.
As for me, the old man who was quiet all week while I jabbered my nine year old mouth off taught me a valuable lesson. The lesson being if you can’t take it, don’t dish it. The jabbering and glee thrown in my face that second quarter taught me that I can definitely take it, so to this day I dish it no matter what. It still sucked that day, though!
I do miss our football talks. He passed away in 2015, but I’ll always remember this Super Bowl as one of my earliest sports memories of note. Losing sucked, but I cherish the memory of this day anyway.