January 17, 2012

1988: Broncos Win AFC Title as Browns Fumble Away Last Chance

On January 17, 1988 the Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns met for the AFC Championship for the second consecutive year. In the previous season’s meeting at Cleveland, QB John Elway led the Broncos on a 98-yard drive to tie the game in the fourth quarter and Denver won in overtime. The rematch would be at Mile High Stadium this time, and the Browns were hoping to turn the tables.

In the strike-affected 1987 season (one week wiped out, three with the teams populated by replacement players), the Broncos again won the AFC West with a conference-best 10-4-1 record (2-1 in the replacement games). Coached by Dan Reeves for the seventh year, the key to the offense remained Elway, who passed for 3198 yards and 19 TDs and became even more formidable when the team began using a shotgun offense. Wide receivers Vance Johnson, Ricky Nattiel, and Mark Jackson, known as “The Three Amigos”, were all capable of making big plays (Johnson was out for the game against the Browns due to a groin injury). The defense had been overhauled but had outstanding players in DE Rulon Jones and LB Karl Mecklenburg. Denver defeated the Houston Oilers in the Divisional round to move once again to the conference title game.

Cleveland, under Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer, had won the AFC Central for the third straight year at 10-5 (also 2-1 in games with replacement playes). The run-oriented offense featured RB Earnest Byner and FB Kevin Mack, but also had the conference’s top-rated quarterback in Bernie Kosar (95.4 rating). Byner had the most pass receptions, but deep-threat WR Webster Slaughter, possession WR Brian Brennan, and TE Ozzie Newsome were a talented group. The most notable players on “the Dawg Defense” were LB Clay Matthews and cornerbacks Frank Minnifield and Hanford Dixon. The Browns had easily beaten the Colts in their Divisional game to advance.

It was sunny and in the 40s with 75,993 fans in attendance at Mile High Stadium. They saw the home team get an early break as DE Freddie Gilbert intercepted a deflected pass on the third play from scrimmage, giving the Broncos the ball at the Cleveland 18 yard line. RB Sammy Winder ran twice for 11 yards, lost one, and then Elway threw to Nattiel for an eight-yard touchdown.

The Browns turned the ball over again on their next possession as Mack fumbled when hit by FS Tony Lilly and CB Steve Wilson recovered for the Broncos at the Denver 40. Following a seven-yard scramble by Elway, RB Gene Lang broke away for a 42-yard gain to the Cleveland 11 and seven plays later, RB Steve Sewell ran for a touchdown from a yard out on a reverse. Two turnovers by the Browns had led to two TDs for Denver and it was 14-0 at just over 11 minutes into the game.

The Browns came back with a 13-play drive that covered 64 yards and stretched into the second quarter. Kosar threw to Newsome for a 25-yard gain on the first play and also hit for 19 yards to WR Clarence Weathers in a third-and-17 situation that moved the ball to the Denver 19. Cleveland got to the six yard line before having to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Matt Bahr, but had put together a good sustained drive and gotten on the board.

The Broncos responded with a scoring drive of their own, moving 80 yards in eleven plays. Elway (pictured at right) threw to Nattiel for 21 yards to the Cleveland one on a third-and-seven play and Lang went one yard up the middle to finish it off and, with Rich Karlis adding his third extra point, it was a formidable 21-3 margin for Denver.

Following a short three-and-out series for the Browns, the Broncos again drove into Cleveland territory. Elway again scrambled out of trouble along the way, taking off on an 11-yard run for a first down in a third-and-ten situation from his own 46. The drive stalled at the Browns’ 33 and a 50-yard field goal attempt by Karlis went wide to the left.

Mack started off the Cleveland series with a 13-yard run and Kosar threw to Slaughter for nine, but after moving into Denver territory, a 15-yard personal foul penalty moved the ball back to the Cleveland 42 and Brennan fumbled after catching a short pass and safety Randy Robbins recovered at the 48. Fortunately for the Browns, this time the Broncos came up empty on the takeaway and had to punt. Cleveland had a shot at putting three more points on the board after Kosar connected with Slaughter for 24 yards to the Denver 28, but Bahr’s 45-yard field goal attempt on the last play of the half was no good.

It was the turn of the Browns to capitalize on a turnover when, on Denver’s initial possession of the third quarter, FS Felix Wright intercepted an Elway throw and returned it 13 yards to the Broncos’ 35. Three plays later, Kosar threw to WR Reggie Langhorne for an 18-yard touchdown and, with the successful conversion, it was a 21-10 contest.

Still, the Broncos came right back. In a third-and-ten situation at his own 20, a scrambling Elway tossed a short pass to Mark Jackson who proceeded to sprint down the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown. It seemed as though Denver had regained command, but the Browns put together an 80-yard drive of their own that took just five plays. The last three were pass completions by Kosar of 12 yards to Byner, 30 to Langhorne, and to Byner again for 32 yards and a TD. The score was 28-17 with just under seven minutes remaining in the period.

The Broncos had to punt following a short series and, starting from the Denver 42, Kosar (pictured at left) again passed the Browns down the field. This time it was nine yards to Mack (followed by a five-yard encroachment penalty on the Broncos), 16 to Slaughter, and eight once more to Mack before Byner ran up the middle for a four-yard touchdown. Suddenly, it was a four-point game in what had been an eventful third quarter.

The period wasn’t over yet and the Broncos went 59 yards in nine plays, highlighted by a 22-yard Elway completion to Jackson. Karlis was successful on a 38-yard field goal attempt and Denver led by 31-24 going into the final period.

Taking over at their own 14 following the kickoff return, the Browns put together an 86-yard drive in nine plays. The biggest along the way was a Kosar pass to Byner that gained 53 yards to the Denver 27. Three plays later, Mack ran for 14 yards to get the ball inside the ten and, on third-and-goal from the four, Kosar passed to Slaughter for a touchdown. Bahr added the extra point and the game that had seemed under control for the Broncos only a short time before was now tied at 31-31.

On the next possession, Elway came out passing and connected with Jackson for 23 yards, but the drive stalled at midfield. With fourth-and-one, the team lined up in shotgun formation but Elway punted, although his kick traveled only 18 yards. The Browns had to punt after their possession, giving the Broncos the ball at their own 25.

Elway threw to Nattiel for 26 yards and, after a three-yard carry by Winder and an incomplete pass, it was again to Nattiel for 26 more yards to the Cleveland 20. Following a time out, Elway passed to Winder three yards behind the line of scrimmage and the running back proceeded to go all the way to put the Broncos ahead by a touchdown.

With just under four minutes remaining on the clock, the Browns started at their own 25. Byner gained 16 yards up the middle and, after another short carry, Kosar threw to Brennan for 14 yards and again for 19, putting the ball at the Denver 24 at the two-minute warning. The Browns gained another five yards on an encroachment penalty and ran for six yards to the 13. Following an incomplete pass and another five-yard penalty on the Broncos, Byner took the ball and had a good gain with the end zone in sight before fumbling. DB Jeremiah Castille recovered for Denver at the three and, for all intents, it was all over (aftermath with Byner in foreground and pile untangling following the fumble pictured at top).

The Broncos ran the clock down with Elway maintaining possession all the way and punter Mike Horan took an intentional safety. After the free kick, Kosar’s last-gasp pass fell incomplete and the Denver Broncos were once again AFC Champions by a score of 38-33.

The Browns had the edge in total yards (464 to 412) and first downs (25 to 24). However, they also turned the ball over four times, including the play that came to be known simply as “The Fumble” at the end, while Denver had just one.

John Elway completed 14 of 26 passes for 281 yards with three touchdowns and an interception and also ran the ball 11 times for 36 yards. Ricky Nattiel caught 5 of those throws for 95 yards and a TD and Mark Jackson (pictured below) gained 134 yards on his 4 receptions that also included a score. Sammy Winder led the team in rushing with 72 yards on 20 carries while, with the one long run, Gene Lang added 51 yards on 5 attempts.

For the Browns, Bernie Kosar went to the air 41 times and completed 26 for 356 yards and three TDs with one picked off. Earnest Byner led the team in rushing with 67 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and also in receiving with 7 catches for 120 yards and a score - unfortunately, the fumble at the end overshadowed the rest. Kevin Mack also ran the ball 15 times and accumulated 61 yards.

“I’m enjoying it now that it’s over,” said Elway afterward. “It was a little nerve-wracking at the time.”

Said a dejected Earnest Byner, “We know that Denver practices stripping the ball every day. Every time you run the ball, they try to take it out of your hands. Maybe if I had pulled the ball in closer…well, I don’t know.”

“This football team would not have been in a position to win the game if it wasn't for Earnest Byner,” said Marty Schottenheimer in defense of his star running back. “I already told it to him. If it hadn't been for - for lack of a better word - Earnest's heroics, we wouldn't have been in the position to win.”

The Broncos went on to lose the Super Bowl to the Washington Redskins. They dipped to 8-8 in 1988 but won their third AFC title in four years in ’89. Unfortunately for them, they lost the Super Bowls in each instance. Cleveland again made it to the postseason in ’88, but as a wild card entry. They lost a close contest in the first round and Schottenheimer was forced to resign. Under Bud Carson in 1989, the Browns again advanced to the AFC Championship game, and again lost to Denver in a contest that was not as closely decided as the previous two between the clubs. The team faded from contention thereafter.

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