John Elway’s Broncos were coming off consecutive playoff seasons in 1983-84, and they were on the threshold of an AFC dynasty, one that would reach three Super Bowls between 1986-89. The 1985 Denver Broncos were sort of dropped in the middle. They missed the playoffs due to a couple heartbreaking losses, but also finished 11-5 and only the weird balance of power in the AFC cost them a postseason spot.
Elway was coming off his breakout year of 1984 and he threw for over 3,800 yards in ’85. The young gunslinger was still erratic though, not quite the polished pro that would become arguably the greatest quarterback of all time.
He completed 54% of his passes, which was decent in the football world of 1985. But his 6.4 yards-per-attempt was fairly low, especially given his arm strength. He threw 22 touchdown passes, but the 23 interceptions were high even allowing for the era.
Denver was also dealing with a fall-off in production from running back Sammy Winder, who went from a Pro Bowl year in 1984 to barely over 700 yards rushing. Winder wasn’t helped by an offensive line that lacked Pro Bowl talent. The receivers were solid, with Steve Watson being a more possession-oriented target and Vance Johnson the deep threat. Collectively, even with the shortcomings, Elway’s offense still ranked eighth in the NFL in points scored.
The defense had more pure Pro Bowl talent, starting with 1st-team All-NFL inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, who recorded 13 sacks. Corner Louis Wright was another Pro Bowler, as was strong safety Dennis Smith, who could cause havoc with his blitzing. Mike Harden, on the opposite corner of Wright intercepted five passes.
Rulon Jones keyed the pass rush and the defensive end got 10 sacks in a Pro Bowl season of his own. But in spite of this, the defense was still proportionally worse than the offense, ranking 13th in points allowed.
Denver opened the season with a marquee game against the Los Angeles Rams, another team that had made the playoffs the previous two years and would also finish 11-5 this season. It was a battle between the arm of Elway and the legs of the great Ram running back Eric Dickerson.
Elway threw two touchdown passes and the Broncos took a 16-10 lead after three quarters. But they lost the rushing battle 147-63 and the Rams eventually wore them down, taking home a 20-16 win.
The first home game came against a weak New Orleans Saints team, and Elway opened it up with a 65-yard touchdown pass to Butch Johnson, then threw two more TD passes before the first half was out. The quarterback finished with four touchdown passes on the game and 353 yards in a 34-23 win. And he kept it rolling in a road game against another bad NFC team, the Atlanta Falcons. Elway threw for 291 yards, spreading the ball around in a 44-28 win.
Another marquee opponent awaited in Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins. Marino had won the MVP award in 1984 and his team reached the Super Bowl. Though Elway would surpass Marino as the top quarterback in the famed draft class of 1983, the Miami QB was off to the better career start. And he outplayed Elway in this game at Mile High Stadium.
Even though Denver won the rushing battle thanks to 103 yards from Winder, but Elway was erratic, going 18/37 for 250 yards. Marino went 25/43 for 350 yards and three touchdowns. The Broncos led 23-20 after three quarters, but once again, a big win escaped them in the fourth quarter, falling 30-26 at home
A shaky game from Elway against the subpar Houston Oilers (today’s Tennessee Titans), saw him throw three interceptions, but Houston wasn’t good enough to take advantage and the Broncos grabbed a 31-20 win at home. They got another less-than-impressive win over a bad team in edging the Indianapolis Colts 15-10 on the road. In this case it was red-zone execution, as four trips inside the 20-yard line ended in field goals.
Seattle was an AFC West team prior to 2002 and they had been a foil for Denver in both 1983 and 1984. In ’83, it was the Seahawks who knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs. Denver returned the favor by winning a close division race in ’84. In their first game of this season, the Broncos played opportunistic football, winning the turnover battle 4-0, getting five sacks and pulling out a 13-10 overtime win.
Two more divisional games followed, this time on the road. Denver dominated Kansas City on the ground, took a 24-0 lead by the second quarter and won 30-10. The Broncos gave it right back in San Diego, not running the ball, falling behind 27-3 and losing 30-10.
It was time for another marquee game, and this time it was the defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers and the stage was Monday Night Football. The snow was coming down in Mile High Stadium and Elway met the challenge. He threw the ball 50 times, completed 28 and got 261 yards, admirable numbers in the conditions.
And the snow ended up playing a decisive role—the Broncos led 17-16, but Joe Montana got the 49ers in position to try a short field goal for the win. As the ball was snapped, a snowball came out of the stands and landed in front of the holder, creating enough of a distraction for the kick to be missed. Denver had a controversial win, and at 7-3, they were in the lead in the AFC West.
Elway was again erratic at home against the Chargers, going 20/42 for 215 yards, but the Broncos were good enough to escape with a 30-24 overtime win. It set up a huge three-week period where they would play the Los Angeles Raiders twice. The Raiders were 7-4 and a game back of the Broncos. The Seahawks were also lingering at 6-5.
The first game took place at the L.A. Coliseum. Elway played efficiently, completing 19/32 passes for 164 yards. But he couldn’t get the ball down the field, and Raider running back Marcus Allen ran for 173 yards. It went to overtime and the Raiders won 31-28.
Denver came back and won 31-23 at mediocre Pittsburgh, thanks to four sacks from Mecklenburg, and four interceptions overall, including a 42-yard Pick-6 by Harden that sealed the game. The Broncos and Raiders were now tied at 9-4 with the Seahawks fading from the race. Los Angeles visited Denver for the big showdown on December 8.
The Bronco secondary was again in a ballhawking mood, picking off four passes, three of them from Smith. They took a 14-0 lead. But they were struggling to run the football and Elway couldn’t pick up the slack, going 18/36 for 158 yards and three interceptions of his own. Allen was having a MVP year and he went a long way toward solidifying it in this game—again it went to overtime and again the Broncos lost, 17-14.
Denver was now really up against it for the playoffs in spite of their 9-5 record. They trailed the Raiders by a game and would lose the tiebreaker. There were only two wild-card berths available and the AFC East had three teams at 10-4. The problem was that the AFC Central was so mediocre that Cleveland would win it at 8-8, meaning a worthy team elsewhere would get squeezed out. Denver was “poised” to become that team.
A late Saturday afternoon game with Kansas City almost ended the playoff bid. Denver played a terrible football game, specifically Elway, who threw five interceptions. But here’s where the quarterback showed the magic that would define his career—even on a bad day, he found a way to make a play, and his 22/37 for 301 yards enabled Denver to steal a 14-13 win.
Los Angeles clinched the AFC West, but Denver still had hope for a wild-card. Coming into the final week, they were chasing the New York Jets and New England. Both teams would play at home against mediocre teams in Cleveland and Cincinnati. It wasn’t a great shot, but Denver only needed one of them to lose.
First things first though. The Broncos had to beat the Seahawks in the old Kingdome on a Friday night telecast. Denver dug themselves a 17-0 hole, including allowing a blocked punt for a touchdown. Elway then invited the entire Bronco team onto his back. He threw for 432 yards and personally carried his teammates to a 27-24 win that kept the playoff dream alive.
Alas, it was not to be. The Jets won in a blowout and the Patriots pulled away in the fourth quarter against the Bengals. The Broncos would miss the playoffs at 11-5. It wasn’t particularly fair, but there were plenty of postseason thrills for this franchise and this quarterback in the immediate years ahead.