Back to the playoffs, but not for long

Broncos fans had to accustom themselves to a new perspective after Super Bowl XII. The scrappy-underdog days were gone — and nearly four decades later, they have yet to return. Their team had arrived. Inching above .500 and being competitive was no longer good enough. The playoff losses that concluded the 1978 and 1979 seasons didn’t engender the same warm feelings that existed in the wake of the Super Bowl XII defeat. Indeed, these represented lost opportunities.

In 1977 and 1978, the Broncos had capitalized on a void atop of the AFC West. The Raiders had peaked in their Super Bowl XI run of 1976, then had a slight, but steady fade, as John Madden retired, Ken Stabler aged, and stalwarts like Willie Brown and Fred Biletnikoff retired. The San Diego Chargers began rising in 1978 after replacing head coach Tommy Prothro with the innovative Don Coryell, but the “Air Coryell” offense didn’t start soaring until 1979, and didn’t reach cruising altitude until the following year. Kansas City had embarked on a second post-Hank Stram rebuilding phase under new coach Marv Levy, and Seattle had a dazzling offense, but a dreadful defense. Neither was a threat to win the division.

So by the end of 1979, it all came down to the regular-season finale at San Diego: Broncos-Chargers on Monday Night Football, winner-take-all for the AFC West crown.

The game would be all too typical of the Broncos in the years following their first AFC title.

Once again, the defense contained an explosive offense, holding the Chargers to 17 points and forcing five turnovers. But the Broncos did San Diego one better, with six giveaways, including four Craig Morton interceptions — three of which came in the fourth quarter. Two were in the red zone.

The Broncos lost 17-7 and settled for the consolation prize: a wild-card trip to Houston six days later.

In the Astrodome, Denver fell 13-7 in one of the most physical games in team history. The Broncos’ defense knocked Houston’s three key skill players—running back Earl Campbell, quarterback Dan Pastorini, and wide receiver Ken Burrough—out of the game, and none would play a week later.

But the Broncos’ offense collapsed. A 50-yard Fred Steinfort field-goal attempt slammed into an upright. Morton threw one touchdown, but tossed an interception and was sacked six times. A shouting match on the sideline among head coach Red Miller, Morton, and quarterback Norris Weese ensued, the frustrations of a scattershot offensive season finally boiling over.

The Broncos had made three consecutive postseason appearances, but the returns had diminished each time. Opponents were starting to figure out how to find occasional holes in the Broncos’ still-stellar defense. The running game was in transition. Morton was 36 and feeling the painful results of the hits he’d accumulated in his career.

As the Broncos flew home from Houston in the late-night hours of Dec. 23, 1979, they had no way of knowing that the championship window for this generation had closed.

1979 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/2 cincinnati bengals 10-0
9/6 los angeles rams 9-13
9/16 at atlanta falcons 20-17
9/23 seattle seahawks 37-34
9/30 at oakland raiders 3-27
10/7 san diego chargers 7-0
10/14 at kansas city chiefs 24-10
10/22 at pittsburgh steelers 7-42
10/28 kansas city chiefs 20-3
11/4 new orleans saints 10-3
11/11 new england patriots 45-10
11/18 at san francisco 49ers 38-28
11/25 oakland raiders 10-14
12/2 at buffalo bills 19-16
12/8 at seattle seahawks 23-28
12/17 at san diego chargers 7-17
12/23 at houston oilers (afc wild card) 7-13

1979 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb craig morton 10
qb norris weese 6
rb otis armstrong 1
rb jim jensen 7
rb jon keyworth 9
rb rob lytle 12
rb dave preston 3
wr haven moses 16
wr rick upchurch 16
te ron egloff 4
te riley odoms 12
c billy bryan 16
t claudie minor 16
t dave studdard 16
g tom glassic 16
g paul howard 16

1979 defense

Pos Player Starts
de barney chavous 16
de brison manor 16
nt rubin carter 15
nt don latier 1
lb larry evans 4
lb randy gradishar 15
lb tom jackson 13
lb rob nairne 4
lb joe rizzo 12
lb bob swenson 16
cb steve foley 16
cb louis wright 16
s bernard jackson 9
s billy thompson 16
s charlie west 7

Record: 10-6

Second place, AFC west