The Drive, an AFC title and Elway’s arrival as a star

John Elway’s first three seasons saw glimpses of both brilliance and inconsistency. In most eras of football, this sort of early-career trajectory was typical for a star quarterback in the making; the immediate star like Dan Marino was unusual. But Elway already had a knack for game-tying and game-winning drives in the fourth quarter and overtime. In his first three seasons, he had 10 such games with those heroics.

Joe Collier’s defense offered a buffer for Elway’s growth in those early years. But by 1986, Elway was maturing, taking over, and more often starting to carry the entire team on his broad shoulders. In that season, he accounted for 21 touchdowns — 19 passing, one rushing and one receiving — as the halfback option pass from Steve Sewell to the Elway became a favorite bold gambit of young offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, who joined the staff in 1984 and became coordinator a year later.

By Week 9, the Broncos were 8-1 and had completed a season sweep of the Los Angeles Raiders with a 21-10 win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Three years before, Raiders owner Al Davis had tried — and failed — to put together a package of players and draft picks to get into position to land Elway. Twice a year, Elway reminded the Raiders of what they missed out on.

“I didn’t even see the ball. I barely saw the blur,” Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes told Sports Illustrated at the time. “He nailed me. Elway’s unstoppable. If he’s healthy, Denver goes 15-1. He does things I’ve never seen before, and I’ve got lots of film.”

Added Raiders linebacker Rod Martin: “The legs are like (Fran) Tarkenton’s. The arm’s all his.”

The complete package at quarterback carried the Broncos to their second AFC West title in three years and a divisional-round showdown with the New England Patriots. They won that game, 22-17.

A week later came one of the most memorable days in Broncos history: Jan. 11, 1987 at Cleveland Stadium, when Elway led “The Drive,” a 98-yard march through the Browns to a game-tying touchdown pass that set up a 23-20 overtime win.

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.

1986 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/7 Los Angeles Raiders 38-36
9/15 at Pittsburgh Steelers 21-10
9/21 at Philadelphia Eagles 33-7
9/28 New England Patriots 27-20
10/5 Dallas Cowboys 29-14
10/12 at San Diego Chargers 31-14
10/20 at New York Jets 10-22
10/26 Seattle Seahawks 20-13
11/2 at Los Angeles Raiders 21-10
11/9 San Diego Chargers 3-9
11/16 Kansas City Chiefs 38-17
11/23 at New York Giants 16-19
11/30 Cincinnati Bengals 34-28
12/7 at Kansas City Chiefs 10-37
12/13 Washington Redskins 31-30
12/20 at Seattle Seahawks 16-41
1/4 New England Patriots (AFC DIVISIONAL PLAYOFF) 22-17
1/11 at Cleveland Browns (AFC CHAMPIONSHIP) 23-20
1/25 New York Giants (SUPER BOWL XXI) 20-39

1986 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb john elway 16
rb gene lang 2
rb steve sewell 2
rb gerald willhite 12
rb sammy winder 15
wr mark jackson 1
wr vance johnson 7
wr clint sampson 5
wr steve watson 16
te joey hackett 4
te clarence kay 12
te orson mobley 3
c billy bryan 16
t ken lanier 16
t dave studdard 15
g keith bishop 14
g mark cooper 5
g winford hood 2
g paul howard 13

Oct. 12, 1986: The Broncos post a 31-14 win over San Diego to equal the best start in team history with 6-0 record.

“The Drive”

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. […]

Record: 11-5
First Place, AFC West

1986 defense

Pos Player Starts
de rulon jones 16
de andre townsend 16
nt rubin carter 2
nt greg kragen 14
lb rick dennison 2
lb simon fletcher 2
lb ricky hunley 15
lb tom jackson 14
lb karl mecklenburg 16
lb jim ryan 14
lb ken woodard 1
cb mike harden 16
cb louis wright 16
s steve foley 15
s tony lilly 1
s randy robbins 2
s dennis smith 14

Feb. 1, 1987: Six Broncos play in the Pro Bowl—Keith Bishop, John Elway, Rulon Jones, Karl Mecklenburg, Dennis Smith and Sammy Winder.