The 1991 Denver Broncos were coming off an uncharacteristically down year. They had gone 5-11 in 1990, a hard crash after reaching three Super Bowls from 1986-89. The ‘91 Broncos bounced back strong with a playoff run.
Head coach Dan Reeves had a pair of coordinators who would play big roles on eventual championship teams in Denver. Mike Shanahan ran the offense, and would later be the head coach when the franchise won its breakthrough Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 1998. Wade Phillips was in charge of the defense. After a long career both in Denver and elsewhere, he came full circle in 2015 and was defensive coordinator of the Broncos’ most recent Super Bowl winner.
More important than the coaches though, was the fact that John Albert Elway was still the man taking snaps and at age 31, enjoyed another Pro Bowl year. He spread the ball among a balanced receivers corps where Mike Young’s 44 catches led the team. Mark Jackson, averaging better than 18 yards-per-catch, was the big-play threat. Steve Sewell was effective coming out of the backfield and a 23-year-old tight end by the name of Shannon Sharpe was getting started on a Hall of Fame career.
Elway got help from his running game in 1991, with Gaston Green being one of seven players in the league who broke the 1,000-yard barrier. The offense finished 12th in the NFL in points scored.
Defensively, the Broncos were even better. They ranked third in the league, with linebackers Simon Fletcher, Karl Mecklenburg and rookie Mike Croel combining for 32 ½ sacks. The safeties were outstanding. Veteran Dennis Smith made a Pro Bowl at the strong safety spot, intercepting five passes. Steve Atwater was 1st-team All-NFL at free safety with five picks of his own.
Denver’s comeback season started at home against Cincinnati, a team that would be on the opposite path in 1991. Elway got the scoring started with a 52-yard touchdown pass to Young. Green ran for 116 yards. The defense shut down the Bengal running game and intercepted Boomer Esiason three times. A 45-14 win got the year started.
A road trip to the archrival Los Angeles Raiders, who had reached the AFC Championship Game in 1990, didn’t go as well. The Broncos were outrushed 133-33 and lost a tight 16-13 game. A similar defensive battle went down the next week at home against Seattle, but in this one Elway was able to make enough to big plays. He hit Ricky Nattiel on a 61-yard touchdown strike in the second quarter, went 19/32 for 252 yards and led a 16-10 win.
Green got back on track the following week when San Diego came to Mile High Stadium. He ripped off touchdown runs from 63 and 20 yards to lead a 27-19 win. A road trip to Minnesota the following Sunday Night saw Elway play poorly, but the defense answered by intercepting Wade Wilson three times, keeping the Vikings out of the end zone and leading a 13-6 win.
Denver went to Houston to face a perennial playoff team in the Oilers, led by their own Hall of Fame quarterback, Warren Moon. The Broncos were awful, giving up first-half touchdowns to the Houston defense and special teams. The result was a 42-14 loss. But Denver was still 4-2 going into the bye week…and they would get another chance at these Oilers before it was all over.
Kansas City was another playoff contender within the division and they came to the Rocky Mountains two weeks later. Elway made big plays, going 14/27 for 270 yards and leading a big 19-16 win. The Broncos went to New England the following week. For a future generation, Denver-New England in the late Sunday afternoon window (or prime-time) would be a staple, but in this era, when the Patriots stunk, the 4 PM kickoff was less compelling nationally. And the game lived down to expectations. No one could find the end zone, but the Broncos were able to twice hold the Patriots inside the 5-yard line and preserve a 9-6 win.
A Sunday Night home date with Pittsburgh was next. The Steelers had been a contender in 1989-90, but were on a down year this time around. Greg Lewis got the bulk of the Denver carries in this game and ran for 111 yards. The Bronco defense made it stand up in a 20-13 win.
The AFC West was a three-team race between the Broncos, Raiders and Chiefs and both rivals were on deck the next two weeks. Green came back at home against the Raiders and ran for 103 yards. Denver still trailed 17-10, when a Elway threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Vance Johnson. But the extra point was blocked…and so was a subsequent field goal attempt, producing an aggravating 17-16 loss.
The winds were blowing heavy in Kansas City the following week and the Bronco defense produced four interceptions. One was a Pick-6 from Charles Dimry in the third quarter of a 24-20 win. Riding high, Denver suffered a letdown on the Sunday after Thanksgiving in Seattle (the Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to 2002). The Broncos turned it over four times, allowed five sacks, allowed Seattle to score on a turnover and lost 13-10.
Denver was 8-4 and tied for first with Los Angeles, though the Raiders held the head-to-head tiebreaker. Both teams were a game up on the Chiefs. The Broncos opened December by hosting the Patriots (the schedule format of the time had teams that finished fifth the previous year play twice). Elway hit Johnson with a 21-yard strike to get the day rolling and went on to complete 18/25 passes for 215 yards and no mistakes. An easy 20-13 win was the result.
There was no team John Elway caused more angst for in the late 1980s than the Cleveland Browns. He did it again on a visit to the old Dawg Pound. The game was tied 7-7 in the fourth quarter, but Elway just had too much firepower. He went 16/29 for 221 yards on the day and led a push for ten late points in the 17-7 win. Later in the afternoon, the Raiders lost in overtime at AFC frontrunner Buffalo. Denver was in first place with two weeks to go.
Three consecutive days on the penultimate weekend of the season clinched another division title. It started on Saturday when the Chiefs lost in San Francisco. On Sunday, the Broncos nearly blew it against a subpar Cardinals team. Elway went 19/33 for 245 yards and put his team ahead 17-6. He also threw three interceptions and the lead was coughed up. Then he ran for the winning touchdown in the 24-19 escape. On Monday Night, the Raiders lost in New Orleans. Denver was the champion of the AFC West.
Buffalo had the #1 seed clinched, but Denver was still in play for the 2-seed and first-round bye. They needed help. The Broncos and Oilers were each 11-4, but Houston had that head-to-head blowout win in October.
On the final Saturday of the season, Denver fans watched with delight as Houston basically no-showed against a mediocre New York Giants team and lost. The door was open for Denver. They didn’t exactly play inspired football at San Diego, but with two sacks from Fletcher and intercepting three passes, they beat the Chargers 17-14. The Broncos would get a week off to start the playoffs.
Houston took care of their business in the first round Broncos-Oilers were set for the late Saturday afternoon TV window in the divisional round. For most of the first half, Houston picked up where they had left off in October. Moon threw three touchdown passes to three different receivers, starting a day he would go 27/36 for 325 yards. The Broncos missed an extra point after an Elway touchdown pass and trailed 21-6. In nearly six quarters of play against Houston, Denver had been outscored 63-20. Fans could be forgiven if they called this one prematurely.
Then again, maybe not, because who counts out John Elway in the playoffs? He went 19/33 for 257 yards and the lead was chipped down to 24-16 in the fourth quarter. Elway converted a 4th-and-4, where he picked up a fumbled snap and rifled a 26-yard completion. Lewis finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. But prior to 1996 there was no two-point conversion, so the score was still 24-23 when Denver got it back on their own two-yard line with 2:07 to play.
Even watching this in the moment, there was the feeling that this game was now Denver’s to lose. Even when they faced two fourth downs on the final drive. Such was the late-game force of John Elway, especially in the playoffs. On 4th-and-10, he hit Vance Johnson for 44 yards. The drive reached the Houston 11-yard line where a field goal delivered the Broncos a 26-24 win.
Denver was a decisive (+12) underdog in Buffalo for the AFC Championship Game. The Bronco defense played a supberb football game, but this time Elway struggled. Five times in the first half, he drove his team past midfield and five times he came up empty. In the third quarter of a scoreless game, Elway’s middle screen pass got tipped into the hands of Bills linebacker Carlton Bailey who returned it for a touchdown. Elway was later forced from the game with a deep thigh bruise and Denver ultimately lost 10-7.
The 1991 Denver Broncos was the last really good team produced in this city by Dan Reeves. After an 8-8 year in 1992, Reeves was fired. Phillips coached the team for the next two years, making one playoff appearance. Shanahan got the head job in 1995 and by the late 1990s, the Broncos were back as an elite force.