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Most exciting Broncos playoff games ever: where does Sunday rank?

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John Fox has a “48 Hour Rule”, which means the Broncos’ focus has transitioned fully to Saturday’s forthcoming game in New England.

I have no such rule, so I am still basking in the organization’s first playoff win in six seasons. The unparalleled ending couldn’t help but make me reflect on the many entertaining playoff games in which the Broncos have participated. Where does Sunday’s game rank? Here’s my list:

(A disclaimer: I started watching football in John Elway’s second season, so I am leaving the 1977 AFC Championship out of the conversation because I didn’t see it at the time that it occurred).

Number 5:

1991 AFC Divisional Round - Broncos 26 Oilers 24 –January 4, 1992

Battling back from a 21-6 deficit, Denver found itself down one, the ball on their own 2-yard line, with 2:07 left in the fourth quarter. Unlike THE Drive (see #3), the Broncos only needed a field goal, not a touchdown. John Elway and the Denver offense converted two fourth downs (one on an Elway run and another on an Elway-to-Vance Johnson duck that makes a Tim Tebow pass look like a Jeff George combine toss) to move into field goal range. Gary Kubiak handled a bad snap and David Treadwell knocked a 28-yard field goal through the uprights for the win.

Number 4:

1987 AFC Championship Game (“The Fumble”) – Broncos 38 Browns 33 – January 17, 1988

As an encore to the game that announced (again, see #3) the official arrival of John Elway the year prior, the Broncos and Browns produced a shootout at old Mile High to determine the AFC Super Bowl representative in the strike-shortened, briefly scab-littered 1987 season. Denver jumped out early, holding a 21-3 lead at halftime. However, Bernie Kosar and the Browns had no intention of letting the Orange & Blue coast to another conference title. Cleveland came storming back in the second half, tying the game at 31 in the fourth quarter. Elway countered with an 87-yard touchdown drive to give the Broncos a late lead, but the Denver defense was helpless in slowing a Browns offense that had found it’s rhythm. Of course, this struggling group produced the game’s signature play when Jeremiah Castille stripped Ernest Byner who appeared on his way to a game-tying score. While Byner failed to secure the ball inside the Denver 5-yard line, the Broncos secured their second straight AFC Championship.

Number 3:

1986 AFC Championship Game (“The Drive”)—Broncos 23 Browns 20 – January 11, 1987

A number of radio listeners with whom I had the “Most Exciting Broncos Playoff Game” discussion earlier this week on Denver’s Sports Station, 104.3 “The Fan” were of the opinion that “The Drive” stood atop the list. While the game certainly served as the stage where John Elway announced his arrival as a “Big Moment” NFL quarterback, I am basing this list largely on end-to-end excitement, not taking into account game magnitude (in other words, the Broncos Super Bowl XXXIII victory over Atlanta didn’t make my list, despite bringing the second of back-to-back titles, because it was a relative blowout). That being said, while the first three-and-a-half quarters of the 1986 AFC Championship game produced very little with regard to offensive fireworks, the final six minute period of regulation speaks for itself. Following Bernie Kosar’s long touchdown pass to Brian Brennan, Elway’s 15-play, 98-yard answer in the face of a dawg-barking crowd with assumptive visions of Pasadena was equal parts masterful and unbelievable.

Number 2:

2011 AFC Wildcard Game – Broncos 29 Steelers 23—January 8, 2012

Have there been more critical wins in Broncos history? Absolutely. But not many have provided more entertainment than Sunday’s game. Aside from the game’s multiple twists, it was also a great view largely because the complexion of the game was so unexpected. A quarter in, it appeared the Broncos offense was going to produce another inept performance when Tim Tebow stepped forth with a completely unforeseen poor man’s Doug Williams Super Bowl XXII 2nd quarter passing explosion. While a number of people developed reasons the Broncos could come away victorious, nobody had Tebow throwing for 300+ yards or leading scoring drives of 80, 73, 59, and 63 yards playing out as possible scenarios. The defensive push that kept the Steelers from advancing into field goal range as regulation ended, coupled with the Tebow-to-Thomas connection on the first play of overtime: dare I say—MAGICAL.

Number 1:

Super Bowl XXXII – Broncos 31 Packers 24 – January 25, 1998

Defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay was a two-touchdown favorite heading into this one and, following a 76-yard touchdown march to open the game, it appeared the Packers were poised to make good on the odds-makers assessment. However, Denver had other plans. Led by a punishing ground attack, for which Terrell Davis gained 157 yards in just three quarters (he sat out the 2nd quarter with a migraine headache), the Broncos finally captured the remarkably elusive Lombardi Trophy. In a game that featured four ties or lead changes, victory wasn’t secure until John Mobley knocked a fourth down Brett Favre pass to the ground with less than a minute remaining. In addition to being the biggest game in Broncos history, this one also goes down as the most exciting.

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