It wasn’t an easy path for the 1978 Denver Broncos to get back to the playoffs. They got inconsistent play at quarterback and no go-to running back ever emerged. But a defense that was rugged and opportunistic helped them survive a competitive four-way race and win the AFC West.
Denver was coming off the best season in franchise history. One year earlier, Red Miller made his head coaching debut. Miller inherited a team that had been steadily improving the previous four years under John Ralston, and the Broncos made the Super Bowl. Craig Morton, the 34-year-old quarterback won Comeback Player of the Year.
Morton was back for more, but Miller often switched between the old veteran and Norris Weese to try and get production. The running game was a mix of backs centering around Otis Armstrong, Larry Canada and fullback Rob Lytle. The constants in the Denver attack were big-play wideout Haven Moses and tight end Riley Odoms, the only Pro Bowl player on the offensive side of the ball.
It was the defense—the “Orange Crush”, that made Denver a contender. They ranked second in the NFL in points allowed. Randy Gradishar at inside linebacker and Louis Wright on the corner were both 1st-team All-Pro.
More Pro Bowl talent included defensive end Lyle Alzado, strong safety Bill Thompson and future ESPN analyst, outside linebacker Tom Jackson. And the Broncos had a big X-factor in their favor, with one of the game’s best kick returners in Rick Upchurch.
The season opener was at home against the Oakland Raiders, a rematch of the previous year’s AFC Championship Game. The Raiders were two years removed from winning the Super Bowl, had been one of the 1970s best teams and they still commanded a respect that Denver did not—Oakland was a four-point favorite on the road against the defending conference champions.
Morton hooked up with Moses on a second-quarter touchdown pass to start the scoring and the defenses took over. Morton only threw for 34 yards, while Raider counterpart Ken Stabler threw for 212. But Stabler threw two interceptions, while Morton stayed mistake-free. The Denver defense stopped two Oakland drives in the red zone and forced field goals. Denver won the opener 14-6.
A Monday Night visit to the Minnesota Vikings followed. The Vikings were another perennial 1970s contender and had reached the NFC Championship Game the prior year. Denver trailed 9-0 in the fourth quarter, but rallied with a touchdown and field goal…unfortunately, they missed the extra point and lost in overtime. Morton and backup quarterback Norris Weese combined to throw three interceptions, as did Minnesota QB Fran Tarkenton. But the Broncos also lost three fumbles.
Denver trailed the San Diego Chargers 14-13 at home, when Upchurch broke a 75-yard punt return for a score in the third quarter and turned the momentum in a 27-14 win. Denver then survived divisional games at Kansas City, thanks to a 228-155 rushing yardage edge and at home with Seattle. Weese started against the Seahawks and threw two early touchdown passes in a 28-7 win.
Weese had also thrown three interceptions in the Seattle game, so it wasn’t as though his performance was solving Denver’s quarterback problems. It hit rock bottom at San Diego when three different quarterbacks combined to go 8-for-30 for 90 yards and three interceptions. Morton threw seven passes and every one was incomplete in a 23-0 loss.
It’s important to note that 1978 was a year of increased passing in the NFL. The rules putting restrictions on defense that have continued to evolve to this day were beginning, and it was a year of increased production through the air. Denver was immune from the trend.
One thing the Broncos did have on their side was the schedule. It wasn’t that it was easy—the Chiefs were a bad team, but everyone else in the AFC West would finish over .500. But through the first 15 games, there was no one that was really any good either. Twelve of the games were against teams that finished between 9-7 and 7-9.
One of those teams was the Chicago Bears, and the Broncos got a Monday Night win at home, with two fourth-quarter touchdowns helping them survive a 157-yard night from Walter Payton. The following week was one of the bad opponents—the Baltimore Colts. Morton took advantage, going east and playing his best game of the year, 20/30 for 202 yards and no interceptions. The game still ended with an ugly score though, 7-6.
The running game came through up in the Seattle Kingdome the following week. The Seahawks, who were in the AFC West until the realignment of 2002, were a contender for the first time, but a well-balanced running attack—contributions from Canada, Armstrong and Lonnie Perrin—helped pull out a 20-17 overtime win. But the run defense came it back the next week, allowing 202 yards on the ground to the New York Jets in a 31-28 home loss, wasting two defensive touchdowns and a competent game from Weese.
Denver was now 6-4 and tied for first with Oakland. Seattle was a game back at 5-5 and San Diego was lurking at 4-6. Morton and Moses hooked up for a big game in Cleveland, connecting five times for 115 yards. Morton threw for 230 on the day in a 19-7 win. The running game and defense delivered at home against Green Bay—Lytle keyed an attack that won rushing yardage 215-84 and the Broncos won 16-3.
It set up a Thanksgiving Day visit to Detroit, and in a tough game, the Broncos fell 17-14. They were at risk of falling from their share of first place, but Seattle beat Oakland. The Broncos and Raiders would meet head-to-head in Oakland the following week, each with 8-5 records and the Seahawks giving chase at 7-6.
The game was on a Sunday Night, something rare at this time in the league’s history, when the prime-time slot on Sunday wasn’t usually occupied. Oakland was again a four-point favorite—the Raiders still had the respect, but given the pointspread was the same is it had been in Denver, it was obvious the cracks in Oakland’s armor were showing.
Denver exploited those cracks, again shutting down Stabler and the offense. A pair of early Raider drives bogged down in field goals. Lytle then ran for a touchdown in the second quarter, Morton connected with Moses for a third-quarter score and Gradishar scooped up a fumble and ran it in the fourth quarter. Denver’s 21-6 win meant they had had swept their biggest rival without allowing a touchdown.
It also meant the Broncos owned the tiebreakers. They were 4-0 against the Raiders and Seahawks and had a one-game lead with two to play, so only one more win was necessary. But with the finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers—far and away the best team in the NFL—getting a home win over lowly Kansas City to wrap it up was imperative.
Denver took care of business. As usual, it wasn’t inspiring—the lead was only 10-3 in the third quarter. But, also as usual, the defense was in complete charge and Morton got in rhythm, hitting Odoms twice for touchdown passes to close out the 24-3 win. It hadn’t been an easy ride, but the Broncos were AFC West champs.
The following week, the Broncos dug a 21-0 hole at home against the Steelers and lost 21-17. Denver went into the playoffs as the #3 seed, in what was then a five-team bracket. There were three divisional winners and two wild-cards, as the major league baseball format is today.
There was also a rule preventing the #1 seed from playing the wild-card winner if the teams were from the same division. So when the Houston Oilers, runner-ups to Pittsburgh in the old AFC Central, won the wild-card game, it meant that Denver got stuck going to the Steel City, rather than to 2-seed New England, a team that was collapsing by season’s end. It was a predictable ending—Denver kicked an early field goal for a 3-0 lead, but couldn’t run the ball and Pittsburgh won going away 33-10.
Even though Denver didn’t make it back to the Super Bowl, the 1978 season was one to be proud of. Even with a better offense, it’s not likely anyone was stopping Pittsburgh that year. And the Broncos fought through their inconsistencies, stayed the course and swept their biggest rival, en route to winning a division where four teams finished 9-7 or better. That’s a pretty good year.