The success came quickly for the Denver Broncos after they drafted John Elway in the spring of 1983. With Elway playing part-time as a rookie, the Broncos made the playoffs. With Elway as starter, they won the AFC West in 1984. They reached the Super Bowl in 1986 and 1987. After a brief step back to .500 in 1988, the 1989 Denver Broncos quickly returned to form—they went to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years, even if the Lombardi Trophy itself managed to elude them.
Elway did not have a vintage year in 1989, with a TD/INT ratio of 18-18. Denver’s offense got a big boost from rookie running back Bobby Humphrey, who produced over 1,110 yards. Vance Johnson was a 1,000-yard receiver. The offense was still good enough to finish eighth in the NFL in points scored, but it was the defense that carried the day in Denver in 1989.
Wade Phillips was the coordinator and the league’s top scoring defense had a Pro Bowl nose tackle in Greg Kragen to anchor the three-man line. Karl Mecklenburg was 1st-team All-Pro at inside linebacker, getting 7 ½ sacks. Dennis Smith was another Pro Bowler at strong safety. Elsewhere, outside linebacker Simon Fletcher got after the quarterback, with 12 sacks, corner Tyrone Braxton picked off six passes and rookie free safety Steve Atwater was a tough hitter.
This aggressive Denver defense put its imprint on the season immediately. They opened in Kansas City and Braxton returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, as the Broncos went ahead 17-0. Randy Robbins then sealed it with an 18-yard interception return in the fourth quarter of a 34-20 win.
A Monday Night date at the Buffalo Bills, who had reached the AFC Championship Game the year before was next. The defense got an early safety, picked off Jim Kelly three times and cruised to a 28-14 win that was more commanding than the score makes it look.
One week later, at home against the Los Angeles Raiders, Elway threw for two early touchdowns and ran for another, setting the tone for a 31-21 victory. Denver was 3-0, and their turnover margin in the first three weeks was +13.
The Broncos had beaten the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Championship Games of both 1986 and 1987, and they went to Cleveland in Week 4. This time, Denver lost the turnover battle 3-1. Neither team had much luck running the ball, and Elway did not play well—6/19 for 198 yards, and Denver took their first loss 16-13.
More offensive struggles followed at home against a bad San Diego Chargers team and the Broncos trailed 10-6 after three quarters. Humphrey ran for 102 yards and Denver rallied for a 16-10 win. The defense then carried the team to a 14-3 home win over the Indianapolis Colts. The Broncos won the rushing yardage battle 169-44, shutting down Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson and getting 92 yards on 21 carries from Sammy Winder.
The Seattle Seahawks had won the AFC West in 1988 and were a perennial playoff contender in the 1980s under Chuck Knox. Denver went to the Pacific Northwest and fell behind 14-0 early. Elway brought the team back, throwing for 344 yards, including a 54-yard strike to Johnson that tied the game 21-21 and the Broncos won in overtime.
Denver came home to face a playoff-bound Philadelphia Eagles team and again fell behind 14-0 Again, Elway brought them back to a 24-21 lead with 278 passing yards. But Elway also threw three interceptions and this time the opponent scored last, with Philly stealing a 28-24 win in the Rocky Mountains
The Broncos hosted another playoff team from Pennsylvania in the Pittsburgh Steelers and came roaring back. Humphrey rushed for 105 yards in a 34-7 win. Denver then went to Kansas City and in a tough, defense-minded game, Kragen returned a fumble for a touchdown that was the biggest difference in a 16-13 win
Denver was 8-2 and in complete command of the AFC West race. The Raiders were 5-5, with the Seahawks and Chiefs trailing at 4-6. It made the cracked ribs Elway suffered against Pittsburgh seem a little less urgent. Along with the stomach virus that sidelined him from a Monday Night game at the Washington Redskins. Gary Kubiak filled in on a windy night in D.C. and game-managed a 14-10 night as Denver controlled the running game on both sides of the ball.
Elway returned for a home date with Seattle on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and announced his return by throwing four touchdowns in the first half, two of them to Johnson, who caught six passes for 154 yards. The result was a 41-14 win and it clinched the division title.
Denver then hit a bump in the road. The Raiders kept Elway underneath in the passing game, intercepted him twice and got late, long touchdown pass from Steve Beurlein to tie the game and eventually won in overtime. The Broncos then hosted the impending NFC East champion New York Giants and failed to score for three quarters, losing 14-7.
In spite of the losses, the struggles of other division leaders meant Denver clinched the #2 seed. On a Saturday afternoon in Phoenix, the Broncos locked up the top spot in the AFC playoffs. Mecklenburg returned a fumble 23 yards for a touchdown and Humphrey led a rushing attack that outgained the Cardinals on the ground 204-22. Denver won 37-0. They dropped a meaningless home game with the Chargers to end the season, with Elway only playing part-time.
After taking the week off, the Steelers came to Mile High Stadium for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff that was the final game of the divisional round. Pittsburgh was fresh off a thrilling overtime win in the wild-card game and they seemed to carry the momentum right into this game. Merrill Hoge, now an ESPN analyst, but then a Steeler running back rushed for 120 yards and Pittsburgh grabbed an early 10-0 lead.
Denver chipped back to within 17-10 by the half and Elway tied it up with a 37-yard touchdown pass to Johnson in the third quarter. The Pittsburgh ground game again took over and they mounted two solid drives into the red zone…but both times, the Broncos held them to field goals.
Elway had a chance and with his track record of postseason heroics already established, everyone knew what they meant. He led a 71-yard drive that ended with a short touchdown run with 2:27 left and this time the defense held on for the 24-23 win.
For the third time in four years, Denver was playing for an AFC Championship. And once again, the Cleveland Browns were the last road block before the Super Bowl. This game was a relatively early kick, 11:30 AM local time, due to the fact that the NFC Championship Game was in San Francisco and it wasn’t until 2003 that the NFL shifted to start times of late afternoon/early evening for Championship Sunday.
Denver awakened first, as Smith intercepted a pass from Cleveland’s Bernie Kosar and set up a quick field goal. Elway then threw a 70-yard touchdown pass for a 10-0 lead. Elway and Kosar swapped touchdown passes, but when Denver took a 24-7 lead late in the third quarter, the game seemed over.
But Kosar led a drive for one touchdown and then a Bronco fumble set up another quick TD for the Browns. Now it was 24-21 as the fourth quarter began. Elway immediately answered, connecting twice with Johnson to move his team into striking distance and then hitting Winder with a 39-yard touchdown pass. Denver drove for two more field goals and in the era prior to the two-point conversion, a 16-point lead at this stage of a game was insurmountable. The final was 37-21.
The result of the Super Bowl in New Orleans was one painfully familiar to Bronco fans. They were blown out by the San Francisco 49ers, 55-10 in a game that got away almost immediately. In fairness to Denver, this particular 49er team was peaking—they had won their two NFC playoff games by a combined score of 64-12 and remains one of the best champions of all time.
A more appropriate way to remember the 1989 Denver Broncos team is as one that brought new defensive aggressiveness and improvement, added it to the foundation that was the John Elway-led offense and reclaimed the throne of the AFC.