January 25, 2011
The New York Giants had not won a NFL Championship since 1956, and lost five title games in the seven seasons that followed. After that came a long dry spell, but on January 25, 1987 the club’s title game absence came to an end as they took on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Under Head Coach Bill Parcells, the Giants plowed through the 1986 regular season with a 14-2 record, winning their last eight contests to finish atop the NFC East. The offense was conservative and led by 32-year-old QB Phil Simms (pictured above), who passed for 3487 yards and 21 touchdowns, but also 22 interceptions. All-Pro RB Joe Morris ran for 1516 yards and 14 touchdowns, and TE Mark Bavaro blocked well and caught 66 passes for 1001 yards to also receive first-team All-Pro recognition. However, the wide receivers were average at best. The defense was outstanding and featured OLB Lawrence Taylor, with his 20.5 sacks. NT Jim Burt and DE Leonard Marshall were Pro Bowlers on the defensive line, and OLB Carl Banks and ILB Harry Carson were outstanding performers as well. New York thrashed the 49ers in the Divisional round of the playoffs and shut out Washington for the NFC title.
The Denver Broncos, coached by Dan Reeves, won the AFC West with an 11-5 tally. They had beaten the Patriots in their Divisional playoff game and then got past the Browns in a dramatic overtime win for the AFC Championship. QB John Elway (pictured below left) had keyed the victory over Cleveland by leading a remarkable 98-yard game-tying drive to force the sudden death period, and the fourth-year pro was the very embodiment of a franchise quarterback. Veteran WR Steve Watson was joined by rising stars Mark Jackson and Vance Johnson, while TE Orson Mobley was a pleasant surprise. The running game, however, was ordinary. The defense featured DE Rulon Jones, versatile All-Pro LB Karl Mecklenburg, and SS Dennis Smith.
There was a crowd of 101,063 at the huge stadium on a pleasant, 76-degree day in Southern California. The Broncos drove to a score on their first possession, with Elway setting the tone on the first play by scrambling away from the rush and running 10 yards. He also threw down the middle to Jackson for a 24-yard gain into New York territory at the 39. Rich Karlis capped the seven-play drive with a 48-yard field goal.
The Giants responded with a scoring drive of their own. Simms completed all six of his passes on the nine-play, 78-yard possession, including a six-yard touchdown pass to TE Zeke Mowatt. New York was ahead by 7-3.
Denver came back with a 58-yard drive in six plays to score another touchdown. Elway had four completions, including a screen pass to RB Sammy Winder that gained nine yards to the Giants’ 24 and, with two penalties tacked on (a late hit called on Carson and unsportsmanlike conduct on Taylor), the ball was moved to the six. Three plays later, Elway took off on a four-yard quarterback draw and dove into the end zone. With the extra point, the Broncos were back in front at 10-7 after a quarter of action.
New York’s next possession, which stretched into the second quarter, resulted in the first punt of the day. Denver again moved into Giants territory on an Elway pass to Vance Johnson that covered 54 yards to the 28 yard line. With Elway completing short passes, the Broncos moved inside the ten, and a seven-yard completion to RB Steve Sewell on third-and-two gave Denver a first-and-goal at the one.
On first down, Elway swept to the right and was dropped for a one-yard loss by Taylor. RB Gerald Willhite carried up the middle for no gain. Now facing third down, Elway pitched out to Winder, who attempted to run a sweep to the left but was dropped by Banks for a four-yard loss. Backed up to the six on fourth down, Karlis attempted a 23-yard field goal that he shanked to the right. Instead of opening up a six-to-ten point lead on the Giants, the Broncos came up empty.
New York punted following its next possession, and Denver took over at its own 15. Elway was sacked, threw an incomplete pass, and then was sacked again, this time by DE George Martin for a safety that cut the Broncos lead to one point. The Giants went three-and-out after receiving the free kick, and Denver regained possession with just over a minute remaining in the half. Elway completed a 31-yard pass to Watson to the New York 32. A shovel pass to Willhite gained 11 yards, but the drive was stopped there. Karlis again missed on a field goal attempt, this time from 34 yards, and the score remained at 10-9 in favor of Denver at halftime.
The Broncos had missed scoring opportunities in the first half, and the Giants made them pay in the third quarter. On the first possession of the second half, New York rolled 63 yards in nine plays that featured five more completions by Simms, including one of 13-yards to Bavaro for a touchdown. With the PAT, the Giants were back in front at 16-10. Along the way, the Giants had converted a fourth-and-one play when they went into punt formation and the up-man, reserve QB Jeff Rutledge, moved up under center, took the snap, and plowed ahead for two yards and the first down.
Following a three-and-out series by the Broncos, the Giants, primarily keeping the ball on the ground, drove 32 yards in eight plays that concluded with a 21-yard Raul Allegre field goal. Denver again couldn’t move the ball on its next possession, and four plays after the Giants got the ball back, Simms completed a pass on a flea-flicker play to WR Phil McConkey for a 44-yard gain to the Broncos’ one yard line. On the next play, Morris ran the final yard for a TD and the Giants had a commanding 26-10 lead in the final seconds of the period.
Elway was intercepted by CB Elvis Patterson early in the fourth quarter, which led to yet another Giants score. Simms threw for a 36-yard gain to WR Stacy Robinson and on the sixth play of the drive, a pass into the end zone that was deflected off of Bavaro’s shoulder was caught by McConkey for a six-yard touchdown.
Karlis finally connected on a field goal, from 28 yards, with six minutes left to play, and the Giants promptly drove 46 yards in five plays that featured a Simms bootleg of 22 yards and ended with RB Ottis Anderson running for a two-yard TD up the middle (Allegre missed the extra point attempt). The Broncos scored one last, long, and meaningless touchdown on a 47-yard pass play from Elway to Johnson, but the outcome had long been decided. The Giants won by a final score of 39-20.
New York outgained the Broncos (399 yards to 372) while both teams had 24 first downs. The Giants outrushed Denver (136 yards to 52) and sacked Elway four times, while Simms was dumped just once. There was only one turnover in the game, by Denver on Elway’s one interception.
Phil Simms, the game’s MVP, set a Super Bowl record for passing efficiency as he completed 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. Joe Morris (pictured at right) ran for 67 yards and a TD on 20 carries. Three Giants caught four passes apiece (Morris, Mark Bavaro, and FB Maurice Carthon) while Stacy Robinson had the most receiving yards with 62 on his three receptions.
John Elway was successful on 22 of 37 throws for 304 yards with a touchdown and the interception and, tellingly, was Denver’s leading rusher with 27 yards and a TD on six carries. Gerald Willhite gained 19 yards on four attempts and was one of two receivers on the Broncos with 5 catches, for 39 yards. The other was Vance Johnson, who gained 121 yards and scored a touchdown.
As to the key series of the game, in the second quarter when Denver failed to score after having a first down on the New York one yard line, Dan Reeves said afterward, “It hurt us. How much I don’t know. But being down there, first-and-goal on the one, and not getting any points, that hurts.”
Of the outstanding performance by Phil Simms, Bill Parcells said, “Phil Simms was just unbelievable. He quarterbacked as good a game as ever has been played.”
“If it weren't for him, we couldn't have done it,” said Lawrence Taylor of Simms. Taylor added, “We've been the best all season. We expected to win. We deserved to win.”
The Giants dropped off to 6-9 in 1987, but were back up to 10-6 in ’88 and a division-winning 12-4 in 1989. They won a second Super Bowl under Coach Parcells (pictured below) in 1990. Denver returned to the Super Bowl the following year, and lost even more convincingly to the Redskins. John Elway and the Broncos would eventually become champions, after three misses in the 80s, but it would not happen until the Super Bowl following the 1997 season.