The 1986 NFL playoffs were ultimately marked by the dominance of the New York Giants, but the greatest drama took place on the AFC side of the bracket. The divisional round provided excitement and an improbable comeback and the AFC Championship Game would see one of the great postseason drives of all time.
John Elway’s Denver Broncos were the #2 seed in the AFC, while the Cleveland Browns, quarterbacked by Bernie Kosar and coached by Marty Schottenheimer were the top seed. Each survived tough fights in the divisional playoff round.
Denver trailed the New England Patriots 13-10 in the second half, with the Pats looking to reach the Super Bowl for a second straight season. The Broncos had the ball near midfield, when the Patriots jumped offsides. Knowing he had a free play, Elway fired deep to Vance Johnson. The result was a 48-yard touchdown pass that turned the tide and Denver won 22-13.
Cleveland came even closer to extinction. The New York Jets had been up-and-down all year long, starting the season 10-1, before losing five straight and barely hanging on to make the playoffs. The Jets eliminated the Kansas City Chiefs in the wild-card game, and were back to looking like the Jets of the first 11 games as they took a 20-10 lead late into the fourth quarter in Cleveland.
There were a little more than four minutes left when a roughing the passer call against New York gave Cleveland life. The Browns scored one touchdown, forced the Jets’ offense off the field and then Bernie Kosar hit Webster Slaughter on a 37-yard pass to set up the tying field goal. In overtime, the Browns missed a chip-shot field goal to win it, but were still able to finally win in double OT.
This context all served to make a great AFC Championship Game even more dramatic. Denver trailed 20-13 and had the ball on their own 2-yard line in the game’s closing minutes. Elway led his team out of the shadows of their end zone, though he would soon face a 3rd-and-18. Head coach Dan Reeves advised him to think in terms of getting half of it on each play. Elway instead rifled a third-down completion to Mark Jackson that got the first down.
Elway would eventually complete the 98-yard drive and Denver won in overtime 23-20, the exact score by which Cleveland had broken the heart of the Jets a week earlier. If the context of what led up to this game added to its drama, what happened in the future would add even more to the storyline. Denver and Cleveland rematched in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, the Browns were driving for a game-tying score…only they fumbled.
How different would the legacies of Schottenheimer and Kosar look if not for Elway? Even though Elway would go to five Super Bowls and win two, The Drive, in the 1986 NFL playoffs, is his greatest legacy.