They won 13 out of 16 regular-season games, leaving them with the best record in the American Football Conference.
They were the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs, which earned them a first-round bye.
Everybody was looking forward to the third round, when they were expected to meet the No. 2 seed, the New England Patriots, with a berth in the Super Bowl at stake.
The year was 1996, and it didn’t quite work out that way.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, a 9-7 team that made the playoffs as a wild card, came to Denver on a 36-degree day in January 1997 having beaten Buffalo in the first round while the Broncos rested. The Broncos jumped out to a two-touchdown lead at the old Mile High Stadium, although a blocked Jason Elam extra point try and failed attempt to make up for it with a two-point conversion left their lead at 12-0.
Behind a 140-yard rushing effort by power back Natrone Means and a precision passing game featuring quarterback Mark Brunell and veteran receivers Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, Jacksonville came back to outscore the Broncos 20-0 in the second and third quarters. Brunell’s second touchdown pass, to Smith, gave the visitors a 30-20 lead with just 3:39 remaining.
John Elway’s late touchdown pass to Ed McCaffrey was too little too late. The Jaguars left Mile High with a 30-27 upset, postponing Elway’s championship dreams for one more year.
Going into their first playoff game of 2013, the Broncos’ circumstances are about the same as they were 16 years ago, except that their first opponent will be a division winner, the Baltimore Ravens, rather than a wild card. So I asked Elway, who now runs the club’s front office, what if anything he remembered about 1996 that might be useful to know today.
“We did it in ’84 also,” he pointed out, harkening back to his second year in the league. “We were 13-3 and had the No. 1 seed and lost to Pittsburgh. So I went through it a couple of times.”
Actually, the Broncos were the No. 2 seed in ’84, behind the 14-2 Dolphins, but otherwise Elway’s recollection is accurate. The Broncos lost at home to the 9-7 Steelers, who went on to lose to the Dolphins in the AFC championship. It turned out to be Dan Marino’s first and last trip to the Super Bowl.
By contrast, in 1997, the year following the Jacksonville debacle, the Broncos made the postseason as a wild card, didn’t get a week off and blew the doors off the Jaguars, 42-17, on the way to their first Super Bowl title.
The following year, 1998, they went 14-2 and were once again the top seed. Just two years removed from a flat performance coming off a playoff bye, they came off their bye with a 38-3 thrashing of the Dolphins on the way to their second straight championship.
“If I could pinpoint one thing, it would be for us not to take the home field advantage for granted,” Elway said. “We still have to play good football. The home field advantage wins no games for you. Obviously, we play better at home and it’s a friendlier crowd, but the bottom line is you still have to go out and play well.
“In ’96, we had a good football team, but we ran into a team in Jacksonville that was playing very well. Those type things happen in the playoffs. That’s why we have to take care of our business, play the best football we possibly can and be ready. Only good teams make the playoffs, and so we’ve got to be ready for a battle.”
The Broncos have done an excellent job this season of concentrating on the task at hand, thanks in large part to Peyton Manning’s fanatical focus and the peer pressure he brings to bear behind it. That quality will be tested this week.
The entire football world is already looking forward to Manning vs. Tom Brady for the AFC championship a week from Sunday. It will be as highly anticipated a playoff matchup as we have seen for years, at least as anticipated as the Super Bowl that follows it.
Just one catch: Both teams have to get there first.
Fans and bettors generally assume that they will. Both the Broncos and Patriots are heavy early favorites — between eight and ten points, depending on the book — to win their divisional matchups this weekend.
When they beat the Ravens by 17 points less than a month ago in Baltimore, the Broncos looked like a clearly superior team. It’s worth remembering, though, that a single play — an egregious mistake by Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco — made that game look more lopsided than it was. Having driven 76 yards from their own 20 near the end of the first half, the Ravens were four yards from a touchdown when Flacco threw an interception into the waiting arms of Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, who returned it 98 yards for a touchdown. What looked likely to be a 10-7 halftime lead for the Broncos became a 17-0 advantage in a matter of moments.
Change the outcome of that single play and the entire complexion of the game changes with it. The Broncos might well have won anyway. They ran the ball effectively and stopped the Baltimore running game. They held the Ravens to twelve first downs. Most of Baltimore’s points — 14 of 17 — came in the fourth quarter when the Broncos deployed a softer defense protecting a big lead.
Still, the dangers in the rematch are obvious:
1. Beating a good team twice in the space of a month is hard to do.
2. Ravens running back Ray Rice averaged just over 70 yards a game on the ground this season, which was exactly the number he managed in Baltimore’s first playoff game, a victory over Indianapolis. The Broncos held him to 38 in their first meeting. Can they do it again?
3. Flacco is a bit of a Jekkyl-and-Hyde act. There are times when he looks like he belongs in the upper echelon of NFL quarterbacks. Like, Sunday, for example, when he put up a passer rating against the Colts of 125.6, the best of any quarterback in the wild-card round. Against the Broncos, he was a thoroughly mediocre 76.5. Can the Broncos’ top-five defense make him look mediocre for the second time in a month?
4. The Ravens finally have all their injured defenders back, including 37-year-old middle linebacker Ray Lewis, their inspirational leader. Will this allow them to play better defense against Manning & Co. than they did in Baltimore, where they gave up 350 yards of offense, including 163 on the ground?
Make no mistake: The Broncos should beat the Ravens. They’re better on both sides of the ball. They beat them handily in Baltimore, so beating them in Denver should be easier.
Of course, that’s exactly the attitude that can send you home from the postseason early, wondering what happened. Elway remembers the feeling.