AFC champions for the first time

Haven Moses
Haven Moses celebrates one of two touchdown receptions that gave the Broncos a 20-17 AFC Championship win over the Oakland Raiders.

In a hard-fought game at Mile High Stadium, Haven Moses’ two touchdown receptions lead the Broncos to a 20-17 AFC Championship Game win over Oakland and a trip to Super Bowl XII.

Moses had been a Broncos standout since 1972, but it wasn’t until Craig Morton arrived in 1977 that the Broncos were able to consistently make the deep ball work. Never did it work better than in the first quarter against the Raiders, when Morton hit Moses for a 74-yard catch-and-run that put the Broncos in front.

Morton gingerly dropped back, turning for a play-action fake. From the Denver 19-yard-line, seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, he spotted Moses cutting toward the Raiders sideline at midfield, with two steps of separation from Oakland cornerback Skip Thomas, a defender who answered to the nickname “Dr. Death.” Thomas caught up to Moses at the Oakland 40-yard-line, but tried to bring him down high, and Moses easily shook him off and sprinted the rest of the way.

The frigid, 18-degree day warmed up fast. Mile High went mad. Teammates mobbed Moses in the north end zone, but Morton was not among them; all he could do was hobble back to the Broncos’ sideline to receive his congratulations.

The Broncos had been down 3-0 when Morton hit Moses. They never trailed again.

Morton continued to key on Moses, and he caught four more passes for 96 yards, finishing the day with 168 yards on five receptions. M&M accounted for 20 more yards together than anyone else on the offense.

The win was typical of the 1977 season; the Broncos forced three Oakland turnovers and held the Raiders to just 4.1 yards per play. But the explosion of Morton and Moses was something that couldn’t have been foreseen in Week 1, when the passing game had no rhythm and the offense remained a work in progress.

From Oakland’s perspective, the win was tinged with controversy; to this day, the Raiders maintain that Rob Lytle fumbled near the goal line in the third quarter, allowing Oakland’s Mike McCoy to recover. Head linesman Ed Marion whistled the play dead, claiming Lytle’s forward progress was stopped. Given the reprieve, the Broncos scored one play later when Jon Keyworth plunged over the goal line.

Said Miller: “All season long, they said we were too young and that we didn’t belong here. “I wonder if they believe we’re for real now? I guarantee you we’re for real.”

In the emotional locker room, most Broncos whooped and hollered in jubilation, much like the fans who stormed the field as the game ended.

In one corner, Morton celebrated quietly, not because of the pain from an injured hip that left him in the hospital and away from practice all week, but the emotion of the moment. He’d started in Super Bowl V for the Cowboys, but was benched the following season. His circuitous road back to the Super Bowl was unlike any other to that point, and it would take another three decades before Kurt Warner traveled a similar path.

“It’s not the hip,” Morton told Sports Illustrated in the locker room after the win. “I’m frankly just overcome with emotion.”

So was Denver and all of Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Region, really. After 17 seasons without as much as a playoff appearances, their Broncos were suddenly headed to the biggest stage in North American professional sports.