The Denver Broncos were in need of redemption on multiple fronts. From the perspective of history, they were 0-4 in Super Bowls, including three blowout losses in the late 1980s. Of more immediate vintage was a failure in the 1996 playoffs, when they lost a divisional round game to Jacksonville as the #1 seed and double-digit favorite. John Elway was aging, now 37-years-old. And in the 1997 NFL season, Elway and the Broncos found their vindication.
Elway’s offense was the most productive in all of pro football, but he was no longer the leader. That honor fell to Terrell Davis, one of the game’s elite running backs. Tight end Shannon Sharpe was another 1st-team All-Pro and future Hall of Famer. Defensively, the Broncos had an All-Pro linebacker in John Mobley and a Pro Bowl defensive end in Neil Smith. The Denver D ranked sixth in the NFL.
The Broncos had a tough rival in the AFC West with the Kansas City Chiefs. KC didn’t have the elite talent that Denver did, but a defense led by outside linebacker Derrick Thomas was the best in the league. The pride and joy of head coach Marty Schottenheimer’s offense was always the running game. Even with instability and mediocrity at quarterback, even with no clear #1 running back, the Chiefs ranked sixth in the league for points scored by running the ball behind All-Pro guard Dave Szott.
Denver and Kansas City were the AFC’s two best teams. The Broncos decisively won the first matchup, a 19-3 win in the season opener. Denver went on to comfortably beat defending AFC champ New England on the first Monday Night in October. As for Kansas City, they got a big Monday Night win in early November over contending Pittsburgh. In mid-November, the Chiefs and Broncos played for a second time and Kansas City won a 24-22 thriller.
The race came down the stretch. Denver had control, but December losses to Pittsburgh and a very good San Francisco 49ers team dropped the Broncos to 12-4. The Chiefs finished 13-3 and grabbed the #1 seed. Denver would be in the 4-spot and have to go the wild-card route.
Green Bay was the defending Super Bowl champion, and the Packers were primed and loaded to go for a repeat. Brett Favre was coming off two straight MVP seasons, and in 1997 he delivered a third. This time though, Favre shared the honor and it was with a division rival. Barry Sanders, the all-time great Detroit Lions running back was co-MVP. The Lions were one of three good challengers to the Packers within the old NFC Central.
Tony Dungy’s rebuilding project at Tampa Bay—who was then the fifth member of the NFC Central, along with the four current teams of the NFC North—was ready to bear fruit. A Buccaneer defense anchored by defensive tackle Warren Sapp was near the top of the league. The Minnesota Vikings, with Robert Smith running the ball and top receivers in Cris Carter and Jake Reed, were another contender. Sanders was just one of several weapons in a potent Lions offense that included All-Pro receiver Herman Moore.
Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Minnesota would all make the playoffs. But in the end, none could keep pace with Green Bay. Dorsey Levens had an all-around great year at running back, rushing for over 1,400 yards and catching 53 passes. Antonio Freeman and Robert Brooks were big-play receivers. The Packers got a key October win at home over the Bucs. They won a big Monday Night game in Minnesota to open December, then went to Tampa Bay six days later and won again. Green Bay finished the season 13-3 and seemed to playing their best football as the playoffs began.
But the Packers weren’t the 1-seed in the NFC this time. That honor fell to San Francisco. Steve Young was 36-years-old, but the Hall of Fame quarterback still delivered a Pro Bowl season. Garrison Hearst ran for over 1,000 yards and the Niner offense finished fifth in the league. But the real strength of this team was on defense. Dana Stubblefield racked up 15 sacks and won Defensive Player of the Year. Chris Doleman and Kevin Greene each had double-digit sacks. San Francisco also went 13-3, and the tiebreakers with Green Bay fell their way for homefield advantage.
The AFC East didn’t have elite teams, but they had three good ones in the Patriots, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets. And that trio also had coaching storylines that were juicy in the moment and look even better from the perspective of history. Bill Parcells, after taking New England to the Super Bowl in ’96, jumped ship and went to New York. Jimmy Johnson was in his second season in Miami. This alone made the story compelling. None of us knew at the time that the new coach in Foxboro, Pete Carroll, would be a Hall of Famer in his own right. Or the future that was ahead for Jets’ defensive coordinator Bill Belichick.
New England still had the most talent, with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, Curtis Martin running the football, and Ben Coates playing tight end. Chris Slade was a Pro Bowler at linebacker. The Patriots were in the league’s top eight for both offense and defense.
Miami and New York were a little more flawed. Dan Marino was still behind center for the Dolphins, now 36-years-old, but the defense was mediocre. The Jets’ offense was pedestrian, but Pro Bowl corner Aaron Glenn led up a D that ranked sixth in the NFL.
The three teams came down the stretch and were all 9-6 going into the season finale. Even better, the Patriots and Dolphins were playing head-to-head on the final Monday Night game of the year. The way the tiebreakers fell, the winner of that game would take the division. The Jets, meanwhile were playing the 9-6 Lions in a de facto playoff game for both teams.
New York lost on Sunday afternoon and was eliminated but still finished 9-7 in Parcells’ first year. New England edged out Miami 14-12 to claim the division title and #3 seed. But the Dolphins got in the postseason and there would be a rematch the following week.
Another good division race came in the AFC Central, where Pittsburgh and Jacksonville both made the playoffs and fought it out down to the wire. The stakes were high—with the division title came the 2-seed and a first-round bye. Second place meant the 5-seed and a trip to Denver for the wild-card round.
The Steelers could run the football, with Jerome Bettis going for over 1,600 yards behind a line anchored by All-Pro center Dermontti Dawson. The defense was led up linebacker Levon Kirkland strong safety Carnell Lake. The Jaguars could throw the ball, with Mark Brunnell connecting with Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell. Brunell’s blind side was protected by All-Pro tackle Tony Boselli.
Jacksonville won the first head-to-head game, on a Monday Night in September. Pittsburgh got payback a month later. The key sequence came on a six-day stretch in December when each team had to play the Patriots. The Jaguars lost to New England on December 7. Six days later, in a Saturday afternoon special, the Steelers edged the Pats 24-21. Both Pittsburgh and Jacksonville finished 11-5, but the division crown and first-round bye went to the Steelers.
The New York Giants had a terrific defense. Michael Strahan was an All-Pro at defensive end. On the inside, Robert Harris recorded ten sacks. Linebacker Jessie Armstead was another All-Pro. The Giant defense ranked third in the NFL. The offense was subpar, but so was the rest of the NFC East. A mediocre Washington Redskins team was the closest thing New York had to a challenger .When the Giants beat the ‘Skins 30-10 on a Saturday afternoon, right before the aforementioned Pittsburgh-New England game, it was the difference in the division race.
The Giants met the Vikings to open wild-card weekend. On the surface, it was the least compelling of the four first-round games, but it turned out to be the best. Minnesota rallied with 10 points late to pull out a 23-22 win. In the NFC’s other game, Tampa Bay hosted Detroit and the Bucs won their first playoff game since 1979 with a 20-10 win.
It was the AFC that had the juicy matchups, although neither one proved to be particularly competitive. New England’s defense was in command against Miami, and the Patriots beat their rivals for the second straight week, 17-3. Denver dismantled Jacksonville 42-17 and was primed to go to Kansas City.
In the divisional round, Pittsburgh and New England met in what was a rematch from this same round last year. The Steelers led a defensive game 7-6 deep into the fourth quarter. Facing a 4th down and goal on the 1-yard line, Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher went for the throat. In this era before the two-point conversion he tried to get an eight-point lead and seal the game. The Patriots came up with a goal-line stop and gave Bledsoe another chance. But the Steeler defense delivered and the 7-6 final held up .
San Francisco and Green Bay each had take-care-of-business wins. The 49ers blew out the Vikings 38-22, while the Packers got an early lead and then churned out a 21-7 win over the Buccaneers.
It was the late game on Sunday afternoon that was the marquee event—Round 3 of Broncos-Chiefs. The game was hard-fought and went down to the wire. But anyone who has followed the history of John Elway playing Marty Schottenheimer, going back to Marty’s days in Cleveland in the 1980s, knows how these games turn out. Denver took a 14-10 lead in the fourth quarter and then held off one last Chiefs drive.
The Broncos continued their road journey in Pittsburgh. A second-quarter scoring burst gave Denver a 24-14 lead, and the defense took over from there, intercepting three Kordell Stewart passes and preserving a 24-21 win. The NFC Championship Game ended up a complete mismatch. Green Bay dominated San Francisco on the road. The 23-10 final, made respectable only by a late 49er kickoff return for a touchdown, doesn’t indicate how lopsided this was.
The Packers appeared to be peaking. They were installed as a solid 11-point favorite for the Super Bowl. For the Broncos, this appeared like it might be similar to those 1980s Super Bowls with Elway. Especially when Favre threw an early touchdown pass to Freeman for a 7-0 lead.
But those Denver teams of the 1980s were not as physical as this 1997 edition was. This ’97 team wasn’t dependent on Elway. They could run the ball. And that’s exactly what they started doing. Davis would carry 30 times for 157 yards. The Broncos took a 17-7 lead in the second quarter.
The Packers tied it early in the third quarter, but Denver reclaimed the momentum. They took a 24-17 lead. Green Bay tied it. Denver went ahead 31-24. The Packers came down the field one more time, with a realistic chance to tie on the final possession. But shortly past midfield, the Denver defense held. When a fourth-down pass by Favre fell incomplete, the upset was complete and the Broncos were champions.
Davis was the hero of this game and was named MVP. But Denver owner Pat Bowlen spoke what fans everywhere were thinking, as he honored his great quarterback. Bowlen held up the trophy and said “This one’s for John”.