(John Elway during The Drive. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)
A 48-yard touchdown from Bernie Kosar to Brian Brennan had the 79,915 fans at Cleveland Stadium delirious. That score -- in which Brennan caught the ball at the 17, spun around and raced passed Dennis Smith to the end zone -- gave the Cleveland Browns a 20-13 lead over the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game.
Denver's Ken Bell bobbled the ensuing kickoff and mistakenly fell on the ball near the 2-yard line, rather than letting it go through the end zone for a touchback. With 5:32 on the clock, John Elway took the field needing a 98-and-a-half-yard drive to tie the game.
Against the best team in the AFC, the Broncos hadn't scored on a long drive all day. Nonetheless, Elway chipped away at the Browns' defense with a drive spanning almost the full length of the football field. It took 15 plays and several third down conversions to keep the series alive, but Elway, on a bum ankle, calmly led his team down field. The Broncos seemed stuck when a sack by Dave Puzzuoli had them on third-and-18 -- but Elway responded with a 20-yard completion to Mark Johnson that gave them a first down. A few plays later, Elway found Jackson again for five-yard TD that tied it at 20 with 39 seconds left. Those were Jackson's only two catches of the day.
''It was the greatest drive I've ever been involved with," Elway said after the game. "We just came out fighting and clawing and got the job done.''
''We were all talking to each other, trying to get each other up after that happened,'' said Browns defensive back Felix Wright. ''But it hurts when you're up like that and then let it get away. It affects you.''
Cleveland played it safe and let the clock wind down to zero, making it the first championship game to go to overtime since the AFL-NFL merger. The Browns won the coin flip and opted to receive the ball in overtime, but a quick three-and-out gave it right back to Elway and the Broncos. With the added momentum from the series before, Denver once again ventured deep into Cleveland territory. A 60-yard drive set up Rich Karlis, the last bare-footed kicker in NFL history, with a 33-yard field goal. The snap was good, the hold was good, and Karlis hooked it just right of the left upright, sending the Broncos to the Super Bowl -- although many fans behind the goalpost contended that he actually missed it.
"(It's) an unbelievable feeling." said Dan Reeves, the Broncos coach. ''They had us backed up most of the afternoon. But whenever you have a John Elway as your quarterback, you've got a chance.''
In a sport where fourth period drives epitomized great quarterbacks, Elway's final quarter comeback became the staple of clutch performing and is now simply referred to as "The Drive." With the win, his Broncos advanced to Super Bowl XXI, where they were dominated by Bill Parcells' New York Giants.
(Elway during the '86 AFC Championship Game. Photo by Vernon Biever/WireImage.com)
The championship game loss was particularly devastating for Browns fans, who had renewed their faith in the long-suffering football team. Elway's drive wasn't the only thing that did in the Browns; there were several glaring errors that unfortunately seemed custom for a Marty Schottenheimer-coached team. The most erroneous mistake came on Denver's first touchdown, when Cleveland accidentally lined up with one defender standing on the sideline.
The Browns' misery continued with more tough losses to round out the decade, including a 37-21 beatdown by the Broncos three years later. In 1992, Elway completed a fourth quarter series against the Oilers that would be known as "The Drive II." Once again starting at his own 2-yard line, Elway drove the Broncos 88 yards down field, which led to a 28-yard field goal from David Treadwell. The Broncos won the game 26-24, and afterward, Dan Reeves exulted, "When you've got No. 7, anything is possible."
Up until he won his first Super Bowl, Elway's clutchness was sort of a double entendre. In his career, Elway led the Broncos to a fourth quarter comeback 47 times, then the most in history, and was the catalyst behind series such as the The Drive and The Drive II. Yet at the same time, detractors always pointed out that Elway could never win the big game; he started out his career losing his first three Super Bowls, and in those games, Denver lost by 19, 32 and 45 points. This juxtaposition was best displayed in an episode of The Simpsons, where Homer Simpson imagined being John Elway and scoring a touchdown in the closing seconds, only to look up at the scoreboard and see that he lost, 56-7.
In 1997 and 1998, Elway's final seasons, the Broncos at last won the Super Bowl, thanks in large part to the emergence of their terrific running back, Terrell Davis. With the monkey of not winning it all off his back, Elway retired as not only one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but as one of the game's best clutch performers as well.