“Man, we are the champs”

In many ways, the entire 1997 regular season was a prelude. The Broncos didn’t win the AFC West; that honor, and the No. 1 seed with it, went to 13-3 Kansas City. But when the Broncos began their postseason run with a wild-card rematch against the Jaguars, it felt as though the Broncos were favorites.

“Even though our record didn’t indicate it going from 13-3 to 12-4, we felt we were a better football team than the previous year,” recalled Shannon Sharpe. “Now it was just a matter of going out and showing we were in the playoffs.”

Their mindset was at the intersection of swagger and experience. They had confidence, but knew the consequence of messing up. And they went into the postseason determined to not repeat the mistakes of the previous year that doomed them to a divisional-round loss to Jacksonville.

For one thing, the Broncos were going to ride their strongest horse. And even though Elway was a Pro Bowl quarterback, that meant heavy doses of Terrell Davis in the December and January chill.

“I think Mike (Shanahan) made a conscious decision also that he wasn’t going to make the mistake that we had made the year before in not giving T.D. the opportunity to carry the football,” said Sharpe. “That game we lost to Jacksonville, I think T.D. only carried the ball 14 times, but he was averaging almost seven yards a carry.

“Mike was thinking, ‘You know what? If I get back in this situation, I’m going to give T.D. as many carries as he needs to make sure we don’t fall back into that situation where we’re going to lose a game.'”

The result was the greatest sustained postseason work for a running back in NFL history. Over the next two seasons, Davis would break 100 yards in every playoff game. It began in the Jaguars rematch of Dec. 27, 1997, when he carried the football 31 times for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Backup Derek Loville added another 103 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries as the Broncos trampled Jacksonville, 42-17.

Davis had 101 yards and a touchdown a week later at Kansas City; that was enough in a punishing, 14-10 win at Arrowhead Stadium. He racked up 139 yards on 26 carries and scored once in the AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh; again, the Broncos prevailed, 24-21.

It was called the “Revenge Tour,” because the Broncos had lost to Jacksonville the previous January and the Chiefs and Steelers during the regular season. Only the Packers remained in Super Bowl XXXII, and once again, the Broncos rode Davis, only pausing when he was overcome by a migraine headache in the second quarter, limiting his use to that of a decoy.

By the second half at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Davis had recovered, and the offense began chugging. Davis capped two second-half drives with 1-yard touchdown runs, the latter of which came with 1:45 remaining—and against a defense that appeared to be laying back to permit the score and give more time for a potential Brett Favre comeback.

Whether the Packers intentionally let Davis score the touchdown or actually played to stop him is a matter that will be debated. But all that mattered was that 1:45 remained on the clock for Favre and the Packers to mount one final rally against a defense that ranked fifth in the NFL in 1997. The success of coordinator Greg Robinson’s defenses was usually predicated more on forcing turnovers rather than limiting yards. His 1997 defense could do both.

But in an end-game situation, the Broncos had to be careful. Favre and the Packers took possession at their 30-yard line with 99 seconds remaining. It took just 35 seconds for the Packers to move 35 yards, to the Denver 35-yard line. Most of the yardage came from Dorsey Levens, who took a short pass from Favre and gained 22 yards after breaking a tackle attempt by linebacker John Mobley.

“I knew I had to make up for it somehow and I just wanted the opportunity to do that,” Mobley recalled.

“That series when the defense was on the field — knowing what Brett Favre can do and knowing what kind of offense the Packers had — that probably took about two years off my life,” Brian Habib later recalled.

Then, the defense stiffened. It forced a fourth-and-6 with 32 seconds left in regulation. Favre looked for Mark Chmura, but Mobley, the man who missed the tackle six plays earlier, got his hand to the football first.

“We had a bomb blitz,” Mobley recalled a decade later. “That was kind of our all-out blitz. It was one-on-one; you get whatever man that you got. I knew I had Chmura. I knew he was going to run an option route. If I played him to the inside he was going to cut out and if I played him outside he was going to break in and just get past the chain and Brett was going to throw him the ball so I kind of fiddle-faddled and played cat-and-mouse with him the whole time. He didn’t know if I was inside or outside. When he finally sat down I just jumped on him and got my hands in there and knocked the ball down.”

As Mobley later said, the emotions were obvious: “Nothing but joy and jubilation.”

“All of a sudden, we looked up at the scoreboard and it was like, ‘Hey, it’s over. We win!’ I didn’t think about it the play before—that if we knock this pass down and we get off the field, we win the game. I didn’t think about that the whole time,” Steve Atwater later recalled.

“So all of a sudden, right in an instant, it’s like, ‘Man, we are the champs.’ I just can’t explain that energy and the looks on everyone’s faces that (said), ‘Hey, we did it. We pulled together as a team, we had great leadership from the top all the way down to the bottom and we were able to do what we set out to do.’ There’s no greater feeling in this world.”

Those feelings only grew stronger when Pat Bowlen received the Vince Lombardi Trophy, declared, “This one’s for John!” and handed the cherished piece of silver to Elway. Colorado rejoiced. The Broncos’ journey from the Quonset hut had finally reached the promised land.

1997 Schedule

Date Opponent Score
8/31 Kansas City Chiefs 19-3
9/7 at Seattle Seahawks 35-14
9/14 St. Louis Rams 35-14
9/21 Cincinnati Bengals 38-20
9/28 at Atlanta Falcons 29-21
10/6 New England Patriots 34-13
10/19 at Oakland Raiders 25-28
10/26 at Buffalo Bills (OT) 23-20
11/2 Seattle Seahawks 30-27
11/9 Carolina Panthers 34-0
11/16 at Kansas City Chiefs 22-24
11/24 Oakland Raiders 31-3
11/30 at San Diego Chargers 38-28
12/7 at Pittsburgh Steelers 24-35
12/15 at San Francisco 49ers 17-34
12/21 San Diego Chargers 38-3
12/27 Jacksonville Jaguars (Wild Card Playoff) 42-17
1/4 at Kansas City Chiefs (Divisional Playoff) 14-10
1/11 at Pittsburgh Steelers (AFC Championship) 24-21
1/25 Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl XXXII) 31-24

1997 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb john elway 16
rb terrell davis 15
rb vaughn hebron 1
fb howard griffith 13
wr willie green 1
wr ed mccaffrey 15
wr rod smith 16
te dwayne carswell 3
te shannon sharpe 16
c tom nalen 16
t jamie brown 2
t tony jones 16
t gary zimmerman 14
g david diaz-infante 7
g brian habib 14
g mark schlereth 11

Record: 12-4
Second place, AFC West
AFC Champions
Super Bowl XXXII Champions

1997 defense

Pos Player Starts
de harald hasselbach 3
de neil smith 13
de alfred williams 16
dt michael dean perry 8
dt trevor pryce 3
dt maa tanuvasa 5
dt keith traylor 16
lb allen aldridge 15
lb john mobley 16
lb bill romanowski 16
cb ray crockett 16
cb darrien gordon 16
cb tim mckyer 1
s steve atwater 15
s tyrone braxton 16
s dedrick dodge 1