The first Super Bowl win in the Hall of Fame career of John Elway had been a long time coming. The great quarterback didn’t get over the hump until 1997, at the age of 37. The 1998 NFL season was Elway’s last one and he went out in style, leading the Denver Broncos to a repeat championship.
Elway enjoyed a Pro Bowl season and had productive receivers in Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. Shannon Sharpe, another future Hall of Famer, was the league’s best tight end. But the straw the stirred the drink for an offense that scored the second-most points in the NFL was running back Terrell Davis.
Davis, fresh off a Super Bowl MVP performance the prior year, went off for a 2,000-yard campaign and won the league MVP award. Combined with a defense that ranked eighth in points allowed, Denver rolled to a 14-2 record, blew away the AFC West and secured the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs.
A top-heavy favorite in their conference, Denver appeared destined for a Super Bowl date with the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were even more dominant during the ’98 regular season. They drafted a receiver named Randy Moss, who immediately electrified the league with his ability as a deep threat. Moss began his own Hall of Fame career by being named All-Pro. And if defenses put too much attention on him? Cris Carter, destined for Canton himself, enjoyed a Pro Bowl year on the other side.
The parade of future Viking Hall of Famers having big years in 1998 continued up front, with guard Randall McDaniel. All of which gave quarterback Randall Cunningham a loaded supporting cast, and Cunningham made the most of it—he was named 1st-team All-Pro, and the Vikings had the most prolific offense in the NFL.
And the defense wasn’t bad either—ranking sixth, and led by defensive end John Randle. Minnesota made a huge early statement on a Monday Night at Lambeau Field. The Green Bay Packers had won three straight division tiles. All three of those years ended in at least the NFC Championship Game, two resulted in Super Bowl trips, and there was one championship. Brett Favre was coming off three straight MVP seasons. Reggie White, the great defensive end, would ultimately win Defensive Player of the Year honors in 1998.
But on the first Monday of October, Minnesota destroyed Green Bay, taking a 37-10 lead and winning 37-24. The Vikings won the rematch at home in November, 28-14. Minnesota beat eventual NFC East champ Dallas in an electric 46-36 Thanksgiving shootout. And the Vikings destroyed another good playoff team in Jacksonville, 50-10.
Green Bay was still good, going 11-5 and making the playoffs. But Minnesota, with their only loss being a three-point defeat to Tampa Bay, looked unstoppable when the postseason arrived.
The NFC West was another division that saw an old guard team remain a contender, yet still get displaced by a rising challenger. The San Francisco 49ers were still good—very good, in fact. 1998 was the last productive year in the Hall of Fame career of quarterback Steve Young. Jerry Rice, an all-time great at receiver, made the Pro Bowl. Terrell Owens was a big-time threat. Garrison Hearst ran for almost 1,500 yards. And the 49ers went 12-4.
But the Atlanta Falcons were even better. Coached by Dan Reeves, the Falcons came out of nowhere. Jamal Anderson ran for over 1,800 yards. Chris Chandler put together a Pro Bowl season at quarterback, and the Falcons ended up in the top four for both offense and defense. Atlanta went 14-2 and secured the #2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
The muscle of the NFC was in the Central and the West, and the remaining two playoff spots were filled out in the East. The Hall of Fame “Big Three” of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin had slipped from the early-to-mid 1990s glory days, but they were still productive. Emmitt ran for 1,300 yards, Irvin was a 1,000-yard receiver and Aikman, even missing five games, had a good year.
Dallas outlasted the surprising Arizona Cardinals, who were led by 24-year-old Jake Plummer at quarterback, Adrian Murrell in the backfield and Frank Thomas at wide receiver. The Cowboys went 10-6 and won the division, getting them the 3-seed. The Cardinals slipped into the playoffs at 9-7 and the 6-seed, setting up a third meeting with the Cowboys to start the postseason.
Challengers to Denver in the AFC started in the East, a division that produced four playoff teams. Bill Parcells was in his second year with the New York Jets and this ’98 team was vintage Parcells. They ran the ball with the great Curtis Martin, who rolled up nearly 1,300 yards. They played defense, the second-best in the league, behind All-Pro linebacker Mo Lewis. They got a good year from veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who threw to Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet.
The Jets opened the season by winning a 36-30 shootout over the 49ers. In October, New York hammered Atlanta 28-3. They won a signature Monday Night game over the New England Patriots, the two-time defending AFC East champs. When all was said and done, the Jets were 12-4 and the 2-seed in the AFC bracket.
Miami, coached by Jimmy Johnson, had the NFL’s stingiest defense, anchored by All-Pro linebacker Zach Thomas. Sam Madison and Terrell Buckley were ball hawking corners, with eight interceptions each. The offense was middling, but Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino still had enough in the tank at age 37 to keep them afloat.
The Dolphins won ten games, as did the Buffalo Bills. Doug Flutie, at the age of 36, had a magical ride and made the Pro Bowl. Bruce Smith, the Hall of Fame defensive end, made the Pro Bowl at age 35. Antowain Smith rushed for 1,000 yards and Eric Moulds was a Pro Bowl receiver.
New England snagged the final playoff spot in the AFC. The Patriots had Pete Carroll on the sideline. At the time, Carroll was a young coach with nowhere near the reputation he has today. But in retrospect, him in the same division as Parcells and Johnson constitutes an all-time great lineup of coaches. New England had one of the league’s top corners in Ty Law, a strong-armed quarterback in Drew Bledsoe and a Pro Bowl tight end with Ben Coates. Their 9-7 record got them in.
Tom Coughlin was coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the Jags were a legitimate contender in an otherwise soft AFC Central. Quarterback Mark Brunell was protected by All-Pro offensive tackle Tony Boselli. The Jaguars went 11-5 and won the division. Then they dispatched the Patriots 25-10 in the first round of the playoffs.
Miami won a good 24-17 decision over Buffalo in the AFC’s other wild-card game. Dallas was surprisingly flat, and Arizona won a 20-7 decision that came rather comfortably. But the notable memory of 1998’s Wild-Card Weekend came in San Francisco.
This was the fourth straight year the Packers and 49ers had met in the playoffs, with Green Bay winning the three previous meetings. When Favre led a late touchdown drive to get a 27-23 lead, it looked like was about to be four in a row.
San Francisco got an enormous break, one that would not have happened today. Rice clearly fumbled on the 49ers’ last-ditch drive and the Packers recovered. Officials ruled Rice was down. Replays definitively showed it was a fumble. But there was no recourse to instant replay. Given new life, Young rifled a brilliant touchdown strike to Owens down the middle. San Francisco had a dramatic 30-27 win.
The 49ers got another chance against the Falcons, but Atlanta won a 20-18 decision in the Divisional Round, further validating their rise in the NFC West. The Jets beat the Jaguars 34-24 to advance in the AFC.
And the heavyweights? Denver absolutely demolished Miami 38-3. Minnesota was not challenged in a 41-21 thrashing of Arizona. The anticipated clash was still on schedule.
Then came the NFC Championship Game.
It was a good game, but by rights, Minnesota should have put it away late in the fourth quarter. They led 27-20 and were lined up for a field goal. It was a makeable kick and Gary Anderson was the league’s All-Pro kicker. He missed. Atlanta drove down and tied the game. The Vikings got the ball back with time for a few plays from the best deep passing game in the league. They mysteriously chose to take a knee and go to overtime. Atlanta won it in OT.
For a short while, the AFC Championship Game offered similar drama, when the Jets took a 10-0 lead. But the Broncos got themselves turned around and ultimately won 23-10.
The Super Bowl had the great storyline of Reeves coaching against the quarterback and franchise he had taken to three Super Bowls in the 1980s. But a great storyline was not the same as a great matchup. Denver was significantly better than Atlanta and it showed. The Broncos won 34-19 in a game that was never in doubt. Elway was named Super Bowl MVP. He rode off in a blaze of glory to conclude the 1998 NFL season.