In 1987: A hilarious thing happened to the Cleveland Browns on their way to Super Bowl XXI: John Elway. Old Municipal Stadium (that’s the Mistake by the Lake to you and me) was at Armageddon decibels when Brian Brennan hauled in a 48-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to tale a 20-13 lead over the Denver Broncos with 5:43 to play in the AFC Championship game. When Denver mishandled the kickoff at the two yard line, it didn’t get much quieter. Elway stepped in, however, and marched the Broncos 98 yards, converting three third downs (including a 3rd and 18) and barely escaping Cleveland’s constant pressure. The Drive, as it would forever be known, ended with an Elway bullet that found Mark Jackson in the end zone to tie the score. Still, the Browns felt confident, as they had won three overtime games already that season (including one against the Jets a week earlier in the playoffs). The Broncos won the coin toss though, and the barefooted Rich Karlis booted a 33-yard field goal minutes later for a 23-20 victory that sent the Broncos to Pasadena, the Browns to the front nine and Elway to the Hall of Fame (or at least put him on a fast track). A friend I had from Cleveland swore to me that he was at the game and most of the crowd stuck around and cheered the team for an hour after the game. I never believed him, because if it were me, I would’ve been too busy alternating between pounding alcohol and a cinder block against my skull as to kill the memories. Of course, the laughs doubled the following year…(remember Cleveland, it got better the following year)
In 1998: Ok. It would only be fair to include another Broncos victory in an AFC Championship game that happened on the same day 11 years later. Once again, Elway went on the road and broke the hearts of the home crowd, this time beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-21 at Three Rivers Stadium to go to Super Bowl XXXII in San Diego. Elway had help though, this time from Steelers’ quarterback Kordell Stewart, who began showing his true postseason mettle (more like metal in the space where his brain was believed to have occupied) by throwing three interceptions (two in the Broncos end zone) and losing a fumble, and Steelers’ coach Bill Cowher (who kept relying on Stewart instead of a strong Jerome Bettis). Elway was good enough to lead the Broncos to a 10-point halftime lead which Pittsburgh could never recover from. It would be Denver’s fifth Super Bowl appearance.