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The Drive secures Elway's legacy

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 1999


John Elway had a basic game plan: "We don't look at the situation. We look at what we can do about the situation."

The situation confronting Elway and the Denver Broncos in Cleveland on Jan. 11, 1987, was this: The wind chill was 5 degrees, the Broncos trailed by seven points with 5 minutes, 43 seconds to play, the AFC championship was on the line -- and the ball was on their 2-yard line.

"We've done well all year with our backs to the wall," Elway said, "and we couldn't get any closer to the wall."

Elway proceeded to direct what would become known simply as The Drive.

"Because of John, our team never thinks it's out of the game," coach Dan Reeves said. "That's a good feeling."

Elway had by then established himself as the premier come-from-behind quarterback. This elevated him to near-mythic proportions. He guided the Broncos 98 yards to the tying TD with 39 seconds remaining.

For good measure, he threw in a drive of 60 yards the first time the Broncos got the ball in overtime. His third-and-12 scramble-throw to Steve Watson set up Rich Karlis' 33-yard field goal that won the game 23-20 and sent Denver to the Super Bowl.

"Being human," wide receiver Vance Johnson said, "you tend to doubt yourself at times. But John never seemed to doubt anything at the end. Very seldom have I seen him that calm."

Elway completed 5 of 8 passes for 73 yards in The Drive. The Broncos had to convert three third-down situations along the way.

Several times The Drive nearly stalled.

Nearly.

On third and 2 from the Broncos 10, Sammy Winder ran for 2 yards. After Winder ran for 3 more yards, Elway got it in gear. He scrambled for 11, then passed for 22 to Steve Sewell and 12 to Watson.

After an incompletion and an 8-yard sack, Elway faced third and 18. With the Broncos in shotgun formation, Watson went in motion passing in front of Elway when the ball was snapped. "It grazed my left thigh," Watson said.

But Elway caught it and passed 20 yards to Mark Jackson at the Browns 28, and 14 to Sewell to halve the distance to the goal line.

The first-down pass was incomplete -- Watson caught it just out of the end zone -- so Elway ran for 9 to create third and 1 at Cleveland's 5. The plan was to throw to running back Gerald Willhite in the flats, but he was covered. So Elway threw it to Jackson in the middle of the end zone. Karlis' extra point tied it. The fight seemed to go out of the Browns.

"I think becoming involved with the Super Bowl quest is a lot like falling in love," Browns linebacker Clay Matthews said. "You dive headfirst and you don't worry about the consequences. It felt so good. But today, we broke up."

Elway would break Cleveland's heart again a year later in the AFC title game, and again during the 1991 season (before the Browns broke it by leaving), but this drive was the crusher. "There's no way to put the emotions into words," Browns nose tackle Bob Golic said. "I'm just empty."


-- Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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