Friday, January 25, 2013

Elway's First Championship

On this day 15 years ago, John Elway finally stood at the peak of his profession in the twilight of his career.

Elway had been in the NFL for 15 years. He had played in three Super Bowls — and lost them all. It was widely believed that Super Bowl XXXII would be his last opportunity to win one.

Standing in his way were the Green Bay Packers, the defending Super Bowl champions led by three–time MVP Brett Favre. The oddsmakers made Green Bay an 11–point favorite.

Of course, it wasn't unusual for an AFC team to lose the Super Bowl in those days. The NFC enjoyed a 13–year winning streak in the big game, and, on average, the NFC team outgained the AFC squad 2 to 1 and outscored the AFC team by more than 20 points in those 13 games.

It was a considerable mountain, therefore, that the fates required Elway and the Denver Broncos to climb on that day, and there were many who believed they could not do it.

That in itself was a bit strange because the Broncos had already overcome long odds to get to the Super Bowl in San Diego.

They didn't win their division and had to get into the postseason via the wild–card route. They faced another wild card team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, at home in the first round and won easily, 42–17.

But then they had to travel to Kansas City to face the champions of their division and won, 14–10, on a fourth–quarter touchdown.

And then they had to travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers in the AFC championship. The Broncos' late–season loss to the Steelers ultimately was partly responsible for Denver's loss of the division crown, but they turned back the Steelers in the rematch in spite of being shut out in the second half, giving Elway his fourth try at a Super Bowl ring.

What really made this attempt different was the fact that the offense wasn't so heavily focused on Elway and the passing game. Elway was armed with a pretty good running game, too, thanks mostly to halfback Terrell Davis, who ran for more than 1,700 yards.

Davis gave opposing defenses a lot to think about.

Super Bowl XXXII has been mentioned frequently as one of the best Super Bowls ever played. I would have to agree with that — even though I am a Packers fan and Super Bowl XXXII is the only Super Bowl the Packers have lost.

I believed at the time — and I still believe today — that the Packers shouldn't have lost that game.

With the score tied 24–24 late in the game, the Broncos were driving and doing pretty well. A field goal would have been enough to grab the lead, but, with Favre running the Green Bay offense, the Packers could have moved down the field quickly and either tied the game with a field goal of their own or taken the lead with a touchdown.

Elway, no doubt realizing that he might not have another opportunity to win an NFL title, practically willed his team to victory.

And, as Denver faced second and goal at the 1 with 1:47 to play, Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren told his players to allow the Broncos to score, giving the Packers more time for a game–tying drive. They had two timeouts remaining.

So Davis scored for the third time, and the Packers had 1:45 to work with. For awhile, it looked like the strategy might work. The Packers managed to drive to Denver's 31.

But then the drive fizzled out, and Elway had his championship at the age of 37.

As I have written here before, I am a Packers fan. At the time that game's finale was playing out, I didn't know that Holmgren had instructed his players to allow Davis to score. I thought it was a plausible outcome for Denver's drive, given that, all season, Davis had been providing the kind of ground game that Elway had lacked in his three previous trips to the Super Bowl.

And, as I watched the finish of that game, I felt disappointed that the Packers had lost, but I did not feel that the game had been given away. Well, not initially. After I heard about Holmgren's instructions, though, I did.

To be fair, Holmgren claimed that he thought it was first and goal, not second and goal, and, in that context, such a decision would make sense. It would preserve time and timeouts, and it is easy to see how sideline chaos in the final minutes of a Super Bowl could lead to all sorts of mistakes.

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