Mike Shanahan was in his second year as the head coach of the Denver Broncos in 1996, and the team had to overcome the hold the Kansas City Chiefsseemed to have on the AFC West—the Chiefs had won the division two of the last three years and made the playoffs each year since 1990.
The 1996 Denver Broncos got off to a strong start when rolled over the New York Jets in Week 1. The Broncos kept the momentum going with a win at Seattle and a home win over Tampa Bay, sending them to Kansas City with a 3-0 record.
This was a different Denver team than the one quarterback John Elway had taken to AFC titles in 1986-87 and 1989. Under the leadership of Shanahan, the Broncos had become more run-oriented now that the quarterback was 36 years old and Terrell Davis was beginning a Hall of Fame career.
Davis ripped off a big 65-yard touchdown run and Denver held a 14-10 lead at halftime. But Kansas City’s own future Hall of Famer, Marcus Allen, scored a late TD and the Broncos push to the top of the AFC West was temporarily abated in a 17-14 loss.
Elway, Davis & Shanahan came out of the loss and won at Cincinnati, then beat San Diego and still had plenty of reason to feel good about themselves at 5-1 going into the bye week. They came out of the bye with a win over the Baltimore Ravens, and at 6-1, now held a one-game lead in the AFC West. But they needed to beat the Chiefs to validate their rise, and now it was time for Kansas City to come to Denver.
The rematch was no contest. Elway found Shannon Sharpe for two early touchdown passes and the only score Kansas City would get all day was on a kickoff return. Known for “MartyBall”, the hard-nosed running game emphasized by coach Marty Schottenheimer, the Chiefs were outgained on the ground by the Broncos 213-24. Both Davis and backup Vaughn Hebron ran well and Denver had opened up the AFC West.
The Broncos had to recover and play a Monday Night game in Oakland a week later. Against an archrival and off a draining game, perhaps it wasn’t a shock they were a little flat, letting a 16-7 lead get away as Raider quarterback Jeff Hostetler played an excellent game and threw two second-half TD passes to give his team a 21-16 lead.
But at this stage of Elway’s career it was even less a shock that he would bail his team out, hitting Rod Smith for a 49-yard TD pass that pulled out the win. Another win over Chicago followed and the record rose to 10-1.
A trip to Foxboro to play New England was next. The Patriots were 7-3, on their way to an AFC East title under the coaching of Bill Parcells and the quarterback play of Drew Bledsoe. In a game that was a critical to homefield advantage, Denver again came up big. Davis rushed for two first-half touchdowns, caught a third and the Broncos rolled 34-8.
One week later the Broncos made a trip to Minnesota to face a playoff-bound team in the Vikings. If there was a spot where a letdown might happen, a road game against a good NFC team would’ve been an understandable spot. It didn’t happen.
This Denver team could not only run the ball, they could play defense, led by All-Pro safeties Steve Atwater and Tyrone Baxton and a four-man front anchored by Michael Dean Perry inside and Alfred Williams outside. They kept the Broncos in the game even with the offense a little sluggish, trailing 17-14 after three quarters. Then Elway did it again, hitting Ed McCaffrey with the game-winner in the fourth and throwing for 334 yards.
Denver was 12-1 and had the best record in the NFL when they visited Green Bay on December 8. The Packers were on their way to the top seed in the NFC, so this game was naturally seen as a Super Bowl preview, as the old gunslinger Elway, met the new gunslinger in Brett Favre. Or at least that was the plan.
With Elway nursing some injuries, and the AFC seeding race all but over, Shanahan held his quarterback out. Davis and the defense were enough to keep the game competitive into the third quarter and the Packers only led 13-6. But Favre threw three touchdown passes the rest of the way and the final was a 41-6 rout. Denver split their last two regular season games to close the year 13-3, still the #1 seed in the AFC.
Denver took the field on January 4 as the late afternoon Saturday game against Jacksonville (at the time this was the second game of the day, prior to the NFL’s move to prime-time on Saturday night). The Jaguars were in the second year of their existence under head coach Tom Coughlin and led by quarterback Mark Brunnell. The talent was mostly on offense, where Brunnell could target receiver Keenan McCardell and had bruising runner Natrone Means in the backfield. Tony Boselli, a big tackle could clear the way for Means and protect Brunnell.
None of that was happening in the first quarter, as Hebron scored the game’s first touchdown. As I was looking this stuff up, the name Hebron triggered some memories. He played his college ball at Virginia Tech and a good friend of mine is a diehard Hokie fan who was feeding me a lot of Hebron Kool-Aid back in the early 1990s. Since Hebron went on and became a solid #2 back behind only a future Hall of Famer, I guess my friend was right.
After that early score, Denver missed the extra point and when Elway later hit Sharpe, Shanahan made the mistake of chasing points and went for two. It didn’t work and the score stayed at 12-0. The lost points were made to hurt by halftime, as Jacksonville got two field goals and a touchdown run from Means in the second quarter and led 13-12 at intermission.
When Brunnell hit McCardell for a TD pass and the Jags got another field goal it was nervous time in Mile High Stadium, as the home team trailed 23-12. But Elway had been here before and he rallied the troops early in the fourth quarter. Davis finished off a drive with a touchdown and then ran in the two-pointer. The lead was down to 23-20.
For all the good work that Denver had done throughout the year in becoming more physical, it went for naught today. Means was the dominant back and Jacksonville won the rushing battle 203-126. Brunnell threw another TD pass, and even another Elway answer wasn’t enough. The dream died a tough death in Denver, 30-27.
This was a bitter pill for Denver fans to swallow, because at the time it looked like Elway’s best chance for a ring might have slipped through his fingers—at home, to a 9-7 team with no playoff history no less. But a happy ending was ahead. —the Broncos won the Super Bowl the next two years. As a result we can look back on the 1996 Denver Broncos as one that set the tone for three years of dominance, rather than one that resulted in a Hall of Fame quarterback missing his last chance.