- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

“I’m thinking it’s a done deal. We’re finally going to the Super Bowl.”

— Brian Brennan, Cleveland Browns, Jan. 11, 1987

The Browns’ receiver had good reason to feel that way. He had just caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Bernie Kosar to give Cleveland a 20-13 lead over Denver with less than six minutes left in the AFC Championship game. And after Ken Bell of the Broncos fumbled the kickoff and fell on the ball at the 2-yard line, Brennan, his teammates and the frozen throng of 79,915 at Cleveland Stadium began celebrating.

Imagine! The Browns, once the master of all they surveyed in pro football but long since dormant, were going to Super Bowl XXI!

But nearly everybody in the Dawg Pound forgot one thing.

John Elway.

So, unbelievably, the Browns did not go to the Super Bowl — and still haven’t. Now, 19 years later, every Cleveland player or fan who was there that day wishes he could forget what has become known, simply, as “The Drive.”

Over his 16-year career (1983-98), Elway established himself as the king of fourth-quarter comebacks. He authored 47 of them, led the Broncos to five Super Bowls and won a pair of them in his final two seasons. But it was “The Drive,” almost as much as his stunning lifetime stats, that got him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Everyone’s emotions dropped when we realized we had 98 yards to go,” receiver Mark Jackson recalled to ESPN.com. “[After the fumble,] you looked into your teammates’ eyes, and you could see everyone thinking, ‘Man, what else can go wrong?’”

But, said receiver Steve Watson, “all the doubts, all the questions disappeared when John got to the huddle. He elevated all of us.”

Elway was calm and collected as he spoke to his teammates.

“We’ve worked hard just to get to this point,” he said. “We’re 98 yards away. If we execute and work hard, just as we’ve done since August, good things will happen.”

Great things, in fact.

Elway recognized the magnitude of the challenge, saying years later, “We had done well all season with our backs to the wall — and we couldn’t have been any closer to the wall.”

As it turned out, so what?

“The Drive” took 15 plays. Elway accounted for virtually all the yardage with his arm and legs, completing five of eight passes for 73 yards and scrambling for 20 despite an injured ankle as the Browns wondered, “How does anybody stop this guy?”

Elway’s teammates were equally in awe. Said receiver Vance Johnson: “I never saw him so calm.”

Three times along the way, the Broncos faced and surmounted critical situations. On third-and-2 from the Broncos 10, fullback Sammy Winder ran for a first down. On third-and-18 from the Browns 48, Elway hit Jackson for 20 yards. On third-and-1 from the Cleveland 5, Elway found intended receiver Gerald Willhite covered and instead fired a touchdown pass to Jackson in the middle of the end zone with 39 seconds left.

Rich Karlis’ extra point tied it 20-20, and the game went into overtime. But with the Broncos so elated and the Browns equally deflated, there couldn’t have been much doubt about the outcome. Especially since Elway wasn’t through. This time he led the Broncos on a 60-yard march capped by Karlis’ 33-yard field goal with 5:48 elapsed.

Final score: Broncos 23, Browns 20 — and suddenly the notorious winter winds blowing off Lake Erie seemed much colder to Cleveland fans.

“Because of John, our team never thinks it’s out of the game,” Broncos coach Dan Reeves said.

No kidding?

Unfortunately for the Broncos, euphoria proved ephemeral. Two weeks later, they lost Super Bowl XXI to the New York Giants — as well as XXII to the Washington Redskins and Doug Williams 42-10 the following season. It would be another decade before Elway would shake off the bum rap that he couldn’t win the big ones.

His most stirring victory of all, though, remains the one made possible by “The Drive.” Perhaps Brian Brennan stated it best: “John Elway, unequivocally, is the best clutch player ever to play the game.”

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