You’re sitting up in the frigid stands of the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium (they don’t name ’em like that anymore). The year is 1987. You’re less than two weeks removed from New Year’s Eve, and your team is under six minutes away from going to the Super Bowl.
Yes, you’re a Cleveland Browns fan (sorry about that), but over the past few weeks, in January of 1987, it’s been great to be a Browns fan. Your Brownies are up 20-13 in the AFC Championship game with 5:32 left on the clock, and John Elway is about to take the field. Yes, this is the story of “The Drive.”
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The story of ‘The Drive’: How it happened and the aftermath
The Browns and Denver Broncos entered the 1986-87 playoff run as the number one and two seeds in the AFC, respectively. After just barely scraping by the New York Jets with an overtime victory, the Browns, led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, had Super Bowl aspirations. But the Broncos were coming in with high hopes of their own. Denver had just beaten the number three seeded New England Patriots and were vying for a chance to play the behemoth of the NFL at that point, the New York Giants, in the big game.
John Elway, now in his fourth season with the team, was on his way to superstardom, and though the fans in the stands didn’t know it just yet, this was about to be the moment that launched him into the stratosphere.
Denver’s offense had struggled to find the end zone for much of the game. In fact, with just over 5:32 left in regulation, Denver had scored just three points since the start of the second half. Now, trailing by seven and with the Super Bowl on the line, John Elway took the field. Not lacking confidence, it’s rumored that offensive guard Keith Bishop said at that moment, “we’ve got ’em right where we want ’em!”
Let’s dive in.
Due to an unfortunate muffed punt, the Broncos were starting the drive from their own 2-yard line – 98 yards to go.
First-and-10: Elway gets the snap, backpedals into his own end zone, and throws a strike to Sammy Winder for five yards. Ok, now Elway has some breathing room.
Second-and-5 from the Denver 7-yard line: Winder manages three yards on an outside run to the left. Is this drive going to be over before it even begins?
Not so fast.
Third-and-2 from the Denver 10-yard line: It’s Winder again, this time with a plunge up the middle for exactly two yards. A close call, to be sure, but one that allows the Broncos and Elway to survive and see another set of downs.
Let’s speed things up a bit. Seconds turn to minutes, and all of a sudden, Denver hits the two-minute warning. Elway has driven up nearly half the field, but he’ll have to pick up the pace if he wants to see the end zone.
Coming out of the two-minute warning, Elway is ready to start slinging the rock, but the next two plays don’t go according to plan. Elway first misfires deep on a pass intended for Vance Johnson. Then, disaster nearly sets in as Denver’s quarterback is sacked for an eight-yard loss.
This is where the fun begins. Staring down dwindling odds, Elway becomes Superman. Facing a 3rd-and-18 situation, Elway unloads a 20-yard dart to Mark Jackson, sparking the offense. He commands the team down the final stretch of the field over the next 60 seconds, finally ending the drive with a perfect tight-window pass diving arms of Jackson.
What happened after ‘The Drive’?
Browns fans were stunned. The defense had played well all game, only to bottom out at the last second. Cleveland would go on to lose the game in overtime, and “The Drive” would live in infamy in Browns lore. To some, it’s known as the exemplary display of clutch football in the NFL. In fact, that’s how most see it. It was the crowning of John Elway as the next big thing. But for Cleveland fans, it was a gut punch.
For Elway, he was on his way to becoming one of the greatest quarterbacks the game has ever seen. It would take some time before he finally won the big game, but he was well on his way to a Hall of Famer career, and now, the rest of the league knew it.
As for the Browns, the team bounced back over the next few seasons, making the playoffs three more times consecutively. Two of those playoff runs saw the team back in the AFC Championship Game. But both times, as if fate hadn’t had enough of a laugh back in January of 1987, Cleveland would be bounced from the playoffs by the Denver Broncos and John Elway.