Doomed by the tiebreaker

To this day, the 1985 Broncos stand as the best team, by record, to miss the playoffs since the 1978 expansion to 16 regular-season games and 10 playoff teams.

Eventually, those Broncos were joined by the 2008 New England Patriots. Both teams finished 11-5, but lost tiebreakers for the playoffs. In both cases, other teams won divisions with 8-8 records.

In 1985, it was the Browns who took advantage of a weak AFC Central to make the postseason while the superior Broncos stayed home, consigned to seeing the 11-5 Jets and Patriots duel in the wild-card round — and then watching the Browns face the Dolphins in the divisional playoffs.

“It just doesn’t feel fair that you could be 11-5 and two weeks from now be watching a team that’s 8-8 play in the playoffs,” linebacker Tom Jackson said at the time

The Broncos lost out because of a point-differential tiebreaker that had a higher priority at the time than today. The Jets and Patriots were at plus-129 and plus-72, respectively, while the Broncos were at plus-51, with six wins coming by a touchdown or less.

The Broncos had won a rare Friday-night season finale at Seattle to finish with 11 wins, then came home to watch the Sunday games. Powerless to control their future, they saw the Patriots beat the Bengals and the Jets take out the Browns.

“It really feels unfair. I just don’t know any other way to put it,” said Jackson after the Broncos’ fate was sealed.

The Broncos would eventually make two Super Bowls with that same 11-5 regular-season finish. In 1985, it was good for nothing but a lump of coal in their holiday stocking. Shortly after the season, Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, the chairman of the league’s Competition Committee, announced there would be no changes in the postseason format just because the Broncos had been victimized by it.

“If you happen to lose out in the tiebreaker, that’s the way it is,” said an unapologetic Schramm. His own team was one game worse than the Broncos, but made the postseason, finishing 10-6.

A year later, the same regular-season record paved the way for the team’s second AFC title. But in 1985, it sent them home for Christmas.

1985 Schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/8 at Los Angeles Rams 16-20
9/15 New Orleans Saints 34-23
9/22 at Atlanta Falcons 44/28
9/29 Miami Dolphins 26-30
10/6 Houston Oilers 31-20
10-13 at Indianapolis Colts 15-10
10/20 Seattle Seahawks 13-10
10/27 at Kansas City Chiefs 30-10
11/3 at San Diego Chargers 10-30
11/11 San Francisco 49ers 17-16
11/17 San Diego Chargers 30-24
11/24 at Los Angeles Raiders 28-31
12/1 at Pittsburgh Steelers 31-23
12/8 Los Angeles Raiders 14-17
12/14 Kansas City Chiefs 14-13
12/20 at Seattle Seahawks 27-24

1985 Offense

Pos Player Starts
QB John Elway 16
RB Gene Lang 2
RB Steve Sewell 2
RB Gerald Willhite 4
RB Sammy Winder 12
WR Butch Johnson 7
WR Vance Johnson 8
WR Steve Watson 15
TE Mike Barber 1
TE Clarence Kay 16
TE James Wright 12
C Billy Bryan 16
T/TE Mark Cooper 2
T Ken Lanier 16
T Dave Studdard 15
G Keith Bishop 14
G Winford Hood 3
G Paul Howard 15

Pat Bowlen announces that former owner Gerald Phipps will become the fifth member of the Ring of Fame. “I can’t overstate the gratitude that I feel for this honor,” Phipps said.

1985 Defense

Pos Player Starts
DE Barney Chavous 15
DE Rulon Jones 16
DE Andre Townsend 1
NT Rubin Carter 16
NT Greg Kragen 1
LB Steve Busick 16
LB Rick Dennison 7
LB Simon Fletcher 1
LB Ricky Hunley 2
LB Tom Jackson 5
LB Karl Mecklenburg 9
LB Jim Ryan 14
LB Ken Woodard 9
CB/S Mike Harden 16
CB Steve Wilson 4
CB Louis Wright 15
S Steve Foley 11
S Tony Silly 5
S Randy Robbins 1
S Dennis Smith 12

Feb. 2, 1986: The Broncos are represented by four players in the Pro Bowl — Rulon Jones, Karl Mecklenburg, Dennis Smith and Louis Wright.