The 1987 Denver Broncos gave their fans a season much like the one they saw in 1986. For the most part, that was extremely good. There was a run to the playoffs, a great year from quarterback John Elway and a thrilling victory in the AFC Championship Game. Unfortunately the ending was also familiar with a blowout loss in the Super Bowl.
Statistically, Elway wasn’t spectacular—he made big plays, ranking fifth among quarterbacks in yards-per-attempt. He stayed away from mistakes, ranking eighth in interceptions as a percentage of passes thrown. But he was also a bit erratic, with his 55% completion rate being 18th in the league. What Elway did do was lift a team better than any quarterback of his generation and that won him the MVP award in 1987.
Elway needed to be great because the talent around him wasn’t. Keith Bishop at left guard was the only other Pro Bowler on offense. Sammy Winder, the lead running back averaged 3.8 yards-per-attempt, the worst among qualifying backs.
The good news was that the receivers meshed well with Elway. “The Three Amigos”, as they were known were young and could stretch the field. Ricky Nattiel was the team’s first-round draft pick out of Florida in 1987 and he immediately stepped in to average more than twenty yards a catch, second-best in the NFL. Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson were both 24-years-old and helped Denver head coach Dan Reeves spread the field. Elway and The Three Amigos were enough to produce the fourth-best offense in the NFL.
Inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg was the only Pro Bowl player on defense in 1987, but that’s a little misleading. Strong safety Dennis Smith had reached the Pro Bowl in 1986 and would do so again in the future. Mark Haynes had been one of the best corners in the league with the New York Giants and was still only 29-years-old.
Another misleading stat was that the defense ranked 27th in allowing pass yardage. It’s misleading because they also produced 28 interceptions. The ability to force turnovers combined with excellent work against the run made the Broncos the seventh-best D in the NFL.
Denver opened the season against a good team in Seattle. Elway threw an early 72-yard touchdown pass to running back Steve Sewell. The Broncos still trailed 17-7 in the second quarter before rallying to take a three-point lead by halftime. They broke it open in the second half. Elway threw a couple short touchdown passes and then hit Johnson on a 59-yard strike. The game ended 40-17.
A road trip to terrible Green Bay was extremely sloppy. Elway threw three interceptions and Denver trailed 14-0 in the second quarter. They rallied and the game ended in a 17-17 tie, but as a (-9 ½) point favorite, it was still a big disappointment.
By rights, Week 3 should have been the focal point of the regular season. Monday Night Football was going to show Denver-Cleveland in an anticipated rematch of the AFC Championship Game. Instead, a players’ strike temporarily threw the season into a tizzy.
The owners responded by bringing in replacement players. Week 3 was canceled, but the next three weeks, while the strike lingered, were played by the replacements and counted in the standings.
Ken Karcher, a product of Tulane, was the new Elway and a home game with the Houston Oilers didn’t exactly go well with a 40-10 loss. The Bronco replacements played on Monday Night against the Los Angeles Raiders and Denver turned it around with the running game.
Joe Dudek had gone to Plymouth State and set a new record for career touchdowns, previously held by Chicago Bears’ legend Walter Payton. In 1985, Sports Illustrated made Dudek their choice for the Heisman Trophy. For the Monday Night audience, Dudek rushed for 128 yards and helped the Broncos beat the Raiders—who were quarterbacked by NFL veteran Vince Evans—30-14.
Karcher played well at Kansas City, throwing three touchdowns in a 26-17 win. The regulars came back, but the Denver replacements had done their job, winning a pair of key divisional games.
Another Monday Night game was on the docket as the regulars went to Minnesota. The Bronco defense intercepted five passes, two of them by Haynes, but they gave away the game in every other way possible. Elway was sacked five times. They allowed nearly 200 rush yards. And penalties killed Denver, ten of them for 128 yards. The result was a 34-27 loss.
The Broncos refocused and came home to beat up the lowly Lions, grabbing a quick 17-zip lead and rushing for 212 yards, en route to 34-0 whitewash. But at mediocre Buffalo a week later, Elway played poorly, they were outrushed 258-76, had two punts blocked for safeties and lost 21-14.
Denver’s popularity nationwide was underscored by the fact that they played their third Monday Night game of the season (and it should have been the fourth if not for the Week 3 cancellation) on November 16 against Chicago. Elway made amends for his bad showing in Buffalo.
The Broncos trailed 29-21 in 25-degree weather against one of the great defenses of the era and at a time when the lack of a two-point conversion meant this was a two-score deficit. Elway pulled a rabbit out of his hat in the fourth quarter. He threw for 341 yards, three touchdowns and outgunned counterpart Jim McMahon in a 31-29 win.
Elway and Johnson hooked up to lead the way to a 23-17 road win over the Raiders. Johnson caught five passes for 115 yards, including an early touchdown. The following week in San Diego, the Broncos were marching for another early score when Elway threw an interception in the end zone that was taken 103 yards to the house. But the quarterback took over from there, going 21/32 for 347 yards, three touchdowns and stretching the field with Nattiel. Denver won 31-17.
San Diego still led the AFC West with an 8-3 record as the final four games awaited. Denver was only a half-game back at 7-3-1 and Seattle (an AFC West team until 2002) was 7-4. Four other wild-card contenders were at 6-5 in a jam-packed race.
Denver hosted New England, a team they had ousted from the playoffs in 1986, but who was struggling to a mediocre season. The Broncos again fell behind early, this time 17-3. Again, Elway rallied them. He threw a pair of second-half touchdowns and they eventually led 24-20. The defense came through with its signature—turnovers. Mecklenburg had two picks and Haynes sealed the win with a Pick-6.
The Broncos got help in their division, as the Chargers and Seahawks both lost and Denver moved into first place. It set up a Sunday Night visit to the old Kingdome to play Seattle. Elway had a vintage big-play night—even though he was only 21/43, he produced 335 yards and led his team back from an early 14-0 deficit to a tie game. But the Broncos were being whipped in the line of scrimmage. Elway was sacked five times and and the Seahawks won the rushing battle 141-72. Eventually, Denver wore down and lost 28-21.
San Diego had lost earlier in the day, so Denver’s 8-4-1 record still had them a half-game up on both divisional rivals. The following Saturday they hosted Kansas City in a 4 PM EST start. The Chiefs did a good job removing The Three Amigos from the game, but Elway still went 18/31 for 237 yards and no mistakes, targeting tight end Clarence Kay for six catches and 91 yards. Winder ran for 98 yards and Denver clinched a playoff berth.
There was still the matter of the division title and the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs, both of which Denver controlled and both of which they could still lose. The Seahawks were a half-game back in the West and the Browns were the same in the conference overall. On the final Saturday of the season, Cleveland won and kept the pressure on. In the early part of Sunday, Seattle lost in Kansas City.
The Broncos took the field at home against San Diego assured of the AFC West crown and #2 seed. In a sloppy game with nine combined turnovers they locked up homefield advantage with a 24-0 win. The road to the Super Bowl was coming through Mile High Stadium.
After a week off, Denver met Houston on the final game of divisional round weekend. The Broncos were a ten-point favorite and they backed that up. An early turnover set up a quick touchdown. Another turnover set up Elway’s 27-yard touchdown pass to Kay. Before the first half was over, Elway had flipped a 1-yard TD pass to Kay. The score was 24-3 by halftime.
Elway finished the game 14/25 for 252 yards ad a pair of touchdowns. Johnson caught four balls for 105 yards and the game never got closer, ending 34-10.
It wasn’t all good news though—Johnson was injured and ruled out for the AFC Championship Game. Cleveland had won on Saturday and the rematch was set. You wouldn’t have expected that the game could match the thrills of 1986, when Elway’s 98-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes forced an overtime where the Broncos win. But this was a case where the sequel stood up to the original.
Denver jumped out to the early lead. Linebacker Freddie Gilbert intercepted a tipped ball and a quick 17-yard drive was capped by an Elway TD pass to Nattiel. One possession later the Broncos recovered a fumble at midfield and drove it down to the three-yard line. A third-and-goal, Elway’s pass fell incomplete but there was defensive holding. Sewell ran in for the touchdown that made it 14-0.
The Browns got a field goal, but Denver drove down for a one-yard touchdown run by Gene Lang that made it 21-3 at half and it looked like the night would just be one long party in the Rocky Mountains.
Elway threw an interception early in the second half that turned into a quick Cleveland touchdown. But he came right back and hit Jackson on a short slant that turned into an 80-yard touchdown pass that made it 28-10.
Cleveland quarterback Bernie Kosar was getting in rhythm though and when the Denver defense didn’t force turnovers, they had problems. Kosar, who would throw for 356 yards, led successive touchdown drives and at 28-24, still in the third quarter, we had a ballgame.
Elway led a drive for a field goal, but another Browns’ touchdown drive tied it 31-31 in the fourth quarter. It was time for another big drive from Elway. He finished the game 14/26 for 281 yards and three touchdowns. The final TD was a 20-yard pass to Winder with four minutes left to make it 38-31.
The Denver defense looked completely helpless though, and Cleveland moved right down the field and got inside the 10-yard line. Finally, safety Jeremiah Castille made the game-saving play. He stripped Browns’ running back Earnest Byner, recovered the fumble at the 2-yard line and the Broncos would survive. They took a voluntary safety deep in their own end zone and closed out the 38-33 win.
One year earlier, the Broncos went to the Super Bowl against the New York Giants as decided underdogs. This time it was different. The NFC’s top seed, the San Francisco 49ers, had been knocked out early and the Washington Redskins were the opponent. While the Redskins were a highly respected team under the leadership of Joe Gibbs and in their third Super Bowl in six years, they weren’t seen as a dominant team. Denver was installed as a 3 ½ point favorite.
Elway hit Nattiel on a 56-yard touchdown pass less than two minutes into the game. He threw a 32-yard pass to Jackson and later caught a 23-yard pass from Sewell on a trick play. It was a 10-0 and it looked like the Bronco fans that came to San Diego would reason to celebrate.
The game turned into the most stunning one-quarter reversal in Super Bowl history. The Broncos gave up a long touchdown pass and their rush defense then completely fell apart. The Redskins scored 35 points in the second quarter, a record that still stands. They re-wrote the Super Bowl record book in general. By halftime the score was 35-10 and the second half was just time for a lot of TV viewers to socialize during their Super Bowl parties. The final was 42-10.
Denver wasn’t done winning AFC titles in the 1980s—they again beat Cleveland in the 1989 AFC Championship Game, although this one didn’t come down to the wire. And the Broncos weren’t done getting crushed in Super Bowls, losing to Joe Montana and San Francisco. It wasn’t until 1997 that Elway finally got his ring.
It’s difficult to think of the 1987 Denver Broncos without that second-quarter Super Bowl meltdown coming to mind, but that really isn’t a fair legacy. Elway was as good as there was and lifted relatively mediocre supporting casts to championship levels in the late 1980s.