“The Drive”

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway prepares to send the ball down field en route to a 23-20 overtime victory in the AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/File)
Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway prepares to send the ball down field en route to a 23-20 overtime victory in the AFC Championship game against the Cleveland Browns, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/File)

The Broncos post a thrilling, 23-20 overtime win over the Cleveland Browns.

It began auspiciously, with a poorly fielded squib kickoff knocking the Broncos back to their 2-yard line. In the Broncos’ huddle, tension grew along with the noise from 79,915 fans yelling, barking and brandishing Milk-Bones in honor of their beloved “Dawg Pound” defense. At that point, left guard Keith Bishop spoke up.

“We have them right where we want them,” he said.

“I’m thinking, ‘Are you kidding me?’” right tackle Dave Studdard recalled to The Denver Post in 2012.

But what Bishop said was exactly what the Broncos needed: a little bit of deadpan, but with some honest truth behind it. There was more than five minutes left, so there was plenty of time. And without the confidence to believe the job could be done, how could the Broncos be successful?

“Honestly, I felt like we had a chance. Anytime you have a John Elway as your quarterback, you have a chance,” said coach Dan Reeves. “I could see the determination in his eyes.”

Added wide receiver Steve Watson to Sports Illustrated: “In the huddle after that kickoff to the 2(-yard-line) he [Elway] smiled — I couldn’t believe it — and he said, ‘If you work hard, good things are going to happen.’ And then he smiled again.”

The first step was the smallest: get out of the shadow of the uprights. With the ball at the 2-yard-line, even a holding penalty could have ended the game, since it would have been in the end zone, resulting in a safety. One play, mission accomplished, as Elway found Sammy Winder on a five-yard swing pass. Two more carries by Winder moved the ball to the Denver 12, and moved the chains.

The Broncos had downs, and breathing room. Now, they could finally begin running their offense. After another Winder gain of three yards, Elway began gaining yards in clumps: 11 yards on a scramble, 22 yards on a pass to Steve Sewell, 12 yards on a toss to Watson. The Broncos were in Cleveland territory at the Browns 40-yard line, and their still-raucous fans began squirming at the two-minute warning.

Then, the Browns rallied. An incompletion, a sack by Dave Puzzoli, and the Broncos were back in desperate straits again: at the Cleveland 48, facing third-and-18. The despair heightened for a split second at the shotgun snap, which bounced off Watson, in motion to the right side. But the ball bounced off him and fluttered to Elway, who leaned forward to catch the football.

After that, the play proceeded exactly as it was drawn. Elway stepped back and had plenty of time; the Browns had only rushed three defenders, and Denver’s offensive line easily kept the pocket pristine.

Mark Jackson had worked past Hanford Dixon and was wide open under the Browns’ zone coverage. Even though he had not caught a pass all game, he was Elway’s primary read. It was as easy as a high-pressure, long-yardage play can be. Jackson grabbed the pass, fell forward one yard and had the 20-yard gain to the Cleveland 28.

That was the last third-and-long the Broncos saw. An incompletion was followed by a 14-yard screen pass to Sewell. Another incompletion preceded a nine-yard Elway scramble, setting up third-and-1 at the Cleveland 5-yard-line with 39 seconds remaining. From there, Elway took the snap, dropped back to the 16-yard-line and found Jackson on a slant route for the touchdown that, along with Rich Karlis’ extra point, forced overtime.

“When our backs are closest to the wall is when we really play our best –and we couldn’t get any closer to the wall,” Elway said after the game.

“The day before a big game, you dream of doing things like that.”

A dream, but in a nightmarish set of circumstances. A hostile crowd throwing dog biscuits in honor of their beloved “Dawg Pound” defense. Frigid temperatures and a wind blowing from Lake Erie. A field that was grass in name only; by mid-January in northeast Ohio, it was scarcely more than painted dirt.

But it was the field of dreams come true for the Broncos. They would lose Super Bowl XXI two weeks later, but they had returned to the league’s elite, and Elway had arrived as one of the true game-changers in the sport.