Dominance, and then despair

By Mike Shanahan’s second year as head coach, the offense was at full gallop. Davis had curbed his in-game snack cravings and was en route to a second consecutive 1,000-yard season. The Broncos wrapped up home-field advantage by bursting to a 12-1 start to the season.

Jacksonville changed that. The second-year expansion team was the roadblock on the freeway to the Super Bowl, a feisty bunch that was peaking at the perfect time. A 30-27 win at Mile High Stadium in the divisional round of the playoffs was the Jaguars’ seventh consecutive victory after a 4-7 start and brought a stunning, unforeseeable end to a season in which the Broncos had the league’s best record.

“We were 13-3 and didn’t take care of business,” tight end Shannon Sharpe said.

By this time, Elway was on his 14th season. Seven years had passed since his last Super Bowl. He would be 37 by the 1997 season. There was urgency to win for him — and with him — before the championship window closed.

The loss to the Jaguars could have sunk the Broncos emotionally. Instead, it provided them more motivation than any Broncos team had known.

“The one key ingredient that we had that kind of burned in our souls throughout the offseason before [1997] was that loss to Jacksonville,” recalled linebacker Glenn Cadrez. “That was the key ingredient to our success that kept us wanting to stay in the weight room a little longer, wanting to stay in the film room a little longer, wanting to get every little detail right, so that when we walked on the field, we were so prepared that there was no denying us.”

1996 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/1 New York Jets 31-6
9/8 at Seattle Seahawks 30-20
9/15 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-23
9/22 at Kansas City Chiefs 14-17
9/29 at Cincinnati Bengals 14-10
10/6 San Diego Chargers 28-17
10/20 Baltimore Ravens 45-34
10/27 Kansas City Chiefs 34-7
11/4 at Oakland Raiders 22-21
11/10 Chicago Bears 17-12
11/17 at New England Patriots 34-8
11/24 at Minnesota Vikings 21-17
12/1 Seattle Seahawks 34-7
12/8 at Green Bay Packers 6-41
12/15 Oakland Raiders 24-19
12/22 at San Diego Chargers 10-16
1/4 Jacksonville Jaguars (Divisional Playoff) 27-30

1996 offense

Pos Player Starts
QB John Elway 15
QB Bill Musgrave 1
RB Terrell Davis 16
FB Aaron Craver 15
WR Ed McCaffrey 15
WR Anthony Miller 16
WR/PR Rod Smith 1
TE Dwayne Carswell 2
TE Shannon Sharpe 15
C Tom Nalen 16
OT Jamie Brown 2
RT Broderick Thompson 16
LT Gary Zimmerman 14
G David Diaz-Infante 2
RG Brian Habib 16
LG Mark Schlereth 14
K Jason Elam
PR Todd Kinchen
KR Vaughn Hebron

Record: 13-3
First place, AFC West

1996 defense

Pos Player Starts
DE Harald Hasselbach 1
RDE Alfred Williams 16
LDE Dan Williams 15
LDT Mike Lodish 16
RDT Michael Dean Perry 15
DT Maa Tanuvasa 1
MLB Allen Aldridge 16
WLB John Mobley 16
SLB Bill Romanowski 16
CB Ray Crockett 15
CB Randy Hilliard 3
CB Tory James 2
CB Lionel Washington 12
FS Steve Atwater 16
SS Tyrone Braxton 16
P Tom Rouen