For the first time since 2010, the Denver Broncos failed to reach the NFL playoffs. In their illustrious history, the Broncos have been to the playoffs in 22 different seasons. Broncos fans are used to seeing their favorite team do much more than just gain a playoff berth too. They have participated in the AFC Championship 10 different times, and their record in the game is an impressive 8-2.
So, while the Broncos and their fans were stuck at home watching both championship games on Sunday, we take a look back at our favorite memories in AFC Championship history.
January 1, 1978 vs. Oakland Raiders: The first time
After waiting 17 seasons for any sort of success, the Broncos went 12-2 in the 1977 regular season, qualifying for the postseason for the first time in franchise history. That was the good news. The bad news was that Denver would have to face the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Oakland Raiders, who combined to win the three previous Super Bowls. In the divisional round, Denver outlasted the Steelers to set up an all AFC West Championship game. Broncos fans were rare form on New Year’s Day to see their beloved Orange Crush face the hated Raiders with a Super Bowl on the line. And they didn’t have to wait long for something to cheer about. Quarterback Craig Morton hit wide receiver Haven Moses on an out pattern near the sideline, and Moses turned it up-field for a 74-yard touchdown. Mile High Stadium exploded, and the Orange Crush would stifle the Raiders offense for most of the day. The Broncos would hold off the Raiders and advance to the Super Bowl for the very first time.
Final: Broncos 20 Raiders 17
January 11, 1987 at Cleveland Browns: The Drive
This was the one began earning John Elway some notoriety throughout the NFL. Elway had gotten Denver past the New England Patriots in the divisional round, but it looked like that would be the end of the road. The Broncos had run into a stingy Cleveland team, that took a 20-13 lead with just over five minutes to play. When the Denver special teams botched the kickoff return, the game looked to be all but over…and then Elway came to life. He drove the Broncos 98 yards to tie the game with just 39 seconds remaining. Overtime would prove to be nothing more than a formality, and the Broncos were off to the first Super Bowl of Elway’s incredible career.
Final: Broncos 23 Browns 20
January 17, 1988 vs. Cleveland Browns: The fumble
This time, the Browns would have to come to Denver, and the hometown fans were treated to a shootout. The Broncos jumped out to a 28-10 lead, but running back Earnest Byner, and the Browns came storming back. In the fourth quarter, they would tie the game at 31, but John Elway gave the Broncos a 38-31 lead with a late touchdown. The Browns would not go away quietly however, and drove deep into Denver territory, with just over one minute to play. On 2nd and 5 from the eight-yard line, Byner broke through the Denver defense, on his way to what looked like a game tying touchdown. Broncos cornerback Jeremiah Castille stripped the football, Denver held on to win, and the legend of Mile High magic continued to grow.
Final: Broncos 38 Browns 33
January 14, 1990 vs. Cleveland Browns: The blowout
The Broncos and Browns have played in some memorable AFC Championship games, but this wasn’t necessarily one of them. John Elway struck early, connecting with wide receiver Michael Young for a 70-yard touchdown pass to give Denver a 10-0 lead in the first quarter. Cleveland would rally, but this game was all Denver, as Elway threw for nearly 400 yards and three touchdowns. The Broncos were on their way to their third Super Bowl in four years.
Final: Broncos 37 Browns 21
January 11, 1998 at Pittsburgh Steelers: The ‘go get open’
Elway had the Broncos knocking on the door to another Super Bowl in 1997, but this time he had help; and he would need all the help he could get. The Broncos trailed the Steelers in the first half, but came back to take a 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter. Then, Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart found Charles Johnson for a touchdown to make it 24-21, with just over two minutes remaining. The Broncos needed a first down in order to clinch the game and advance. On 3rd and 6, John Elway went into the huddle, and called a play that wasn’t even in the game plan that week. Tight end Shannon Sharpe asked Elway what he should do on the play. “Just get open.” Sharpe did, and Elway hit him for an 18-yard gain. The Broncos went on to Super Bowl XXI, and their very first championship in team history.
Final: Broncos 24 Steelers 21
January 17, 1999 vs. New York Jets: The wind-defying pass
After winning the Super Bowl the previous season, Denver was on a mission in 1998. They plowed through the competition and were the heavy favorite to repeat. So, it was a bit of a surprise when they found themselves trailing the Jets at home 10-0, in the third quarter. Heavy Denver winds had slowed the Broncos passing game, and allowed the New York defense to key on shutting down running back Terrell Davis. Early in the third quarter, Elway showed that he still had that powerful right arm. He drove a 47-yard pass into the wind, and connected with wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, to give the Broncos some life. Two plays later, fullback Howard Griffith caught a touchdown pass from Elway, and the Broncos suddenly had the momentum. Denver would roll off 23 straight points to beat the Jets 23-10, and go on to win back-to-back Super Bowls.
Final: Broncos 23 Jets 10
January 19, 2014 vs. New England Patriots: The quick start
Peyton Manning had come to Denver, and in 2013, he led the Denver offense to record breaking numbers. The Broncos scored 606 points on the season, and Manning threw an amazing 55 touchdowns. On this day, Peyton got the offense out of the gate early. Denver scored points on four drives of 90 or more yards, and jumped on the Patriots, 23-3. New England never did recover from the Broncos quick start. Just three seasons after Peyton Manning looked like he might be done playing football, he was headed back to the big game.
Final: Broncos 26 Patriots 16
January 24, 2016 vs. New England Patriots: The return of the Orange Crush
For the second time in three years, it would be the Broncos and Patriots squaring off for the right to go to the Super Bowl. However, the Broncos had changed dramatically from the previous AFC Championship meeting. This was no longer a team led by their high-powered offensive attack. The 2015 Broncos were a return to the days of aggressive, physical defense. The Orange Crush held Tom Brady and the New England offense to just 18 points and forced two turnovers, as they came up with stop after stop all day long. The Broncos would advance to Super Bowl 50, where their defense would carry them to a third NFL championship.
Final: Broncos 20 Patriots 18