They were on the 2-yard line -- their own 2-yard line. There was 5:32 left in the 1987 AFC Championship Game, and with Cleveland's 79,915 maniacal fans rocking Municipal Stadium, celebrating the Browns' go-ahead touchdown for a 20-13 lead and joyously envisioning the Browns' first trip to the Super Bowl, any chance of a comeback for the Denver Broncos appeared slim.
Except they had quarterback John Elway, the master comeback artist himself.
On this dark, frozen day with occasional snow flurries and a wind-chill of five degrees, Elway coolly and brilliantly engineered a drive for the ages. And he did it with a wicked wind whipping into his face, on a bad left ankle he had injured the previous week.
Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar had just combined with Brian Brennan for a dazzling 48-yard scoring play, breaking a 13-13 tie. Then, on Mark Moseley's ensuing kickoff, Denver's Ken Bell fumbled the ball and fell on it at the 2-yard line. The boisterous Browns crowd steps it up a notch, roaring with elation, shaking the stadium.
Even the Broncos appear deflated after the kickoff; receiver Mark Jackson admitted, "Everybody's emotions dropped when we realized we were at the 2, that we had 98 yards to go. You looked into your teammates eyes and you could see everyone thinking, 'Man, what else can go wrong?'"
Then No. 7 runs onto the field.
As Elway arrives to the huddle, he smiles. Calmly and confidently, the Broncos' fourth-year quarterback looks downfield. He smiles again. "We've worked hard just to get to this point," he tells his teammates. "We're 98 yards away. If we execute and work hard, just like we've done since August, good things will happen."
"He elevated all of us," receiver Steve Watson would say later. "We were down after we fumbled the kickoff. We were tired. It was an ugly, cold day. But John made us believe. He made us believe that we could do it, that we had to do it. We hadn't moved the ball all day and we were staring at a 98-yard drive. We were only in the game because the Browns committed some big turnovers. But all the doubts, all the questions, disappeared, when John got to the huddle."
First down, Elway completes a five-yard pass to Sammy Winder, who then bulls his way for three yards on second down. It's third-and-2 from the 10 and the crowd is so loud that Elway can't hear himself shout his own signals. He calls timeout, quieting the crowd, slightly. Elway and coach Dan Reeves decide to send Winder over left guard. He picks up two yards, keeping the drive alive.
The next series becomes a chess match between Elway and Cleveland's defense. Elway drives the Browns batty by running, throwing bullets on the run and in the pocket, all under pressure, all in the clutch.
"I never saw him so calm," Broncos receiver Vance Johnson would say. On second-and-7 at the 15, Elway is forced out of pocket, but runs for 11 yards, on a bad ankle, eluding tacklers. Then, after getting sacked for an 8-yard loss, and faced with third-and-18 at the Cleveland 18, Elway runs out of the pocket, looks left, then right, and connects with Jackson for the play of the drive -- 20 yards for a first down.
Reeves' plan on the play was to go for half the yardage with a pass play to tight end Orson Mobley and hope he'd shake loose and run for a first down after the catch. But Elway, typically, has a different idea. He goes for all of it. "I was going to take a shot downfield," he would say. He knew Cleveland's safeties would be playing deep, enabling Jackson to find an open seam. "It was just matter of me putting the ball there," Elway would say.
Later, Jackson said: "Usually, John gives that play a quick read, from the [deeper] route to the [shorter] route. I was the guy who was 20 yards deep. If he wanted the first down, he'd be coming to me. I was bumped off the line. As I got to the top of the route, I broke and John had the ball right there. I didn't have too much time to think about it. John drilled me with the ball."
At this point, Cleveland's defenders are so baffled by Elway and his dazzling array of plays that they begin looking at one another before each down and yelling, "Will someone stop him already!"
Now at the Cleveland 28 and faced with a second-and-10, Elway hits Steve Sewell for 14 yards. Cleveland Stadium is virtually silent now as Elway works his magic. Second-and-10 at the 14, Elway scrambles right for nine yards, sliding hard over the sideline. Elway gets hammered by a pair of Browns, yet he leaps up and races to the huddle. The momentum is all Denver's.
Third-and-one at the 5, the Browns play zone. On the 15th play of the drive, Elway throws a low rocket to Jackson running a slant pattern in the end zone, covered one-on-one. He slides, catching the ball on his knees for the tying TD, with just 37 seconds left, sending waves of shock across Lake Erie.
Elway, ever the professional, runs off the field, his hand clenched, knowing he had just engineered one of the greatest clutch drives in history, a series that has simply become known in NFL circles as "The Drive."
Elway's stats on The Drive: 78 yards passing, 20 rushing. He completes six of seven actual passes -- the one incomplete was intentionally thrown out of bounds.
In overtime, Elway completes the breathtaking comeback victory with yet another spectacular drive, this one 60 yards to position Rich Karlis for a chip-shot winning field goal.