Broncos 37, Browns 21
DENVER (AP) _ This time, the Denver Broncos didn’t need The Drive or The Fumble. They had John Elway.
Elway, in his best playoff performance, and Sammy Winder, in his last home game, carried the Broncos back to the Super Bowl on Sunday. They beat the Cleveland Browns 37-21 for the AFC championship for the third time in four years.
″I’m thrilled to death that I get to go to bat again,″ said Elway, who had his best game of the season and his best ever in the playoffs, throwing for 385 yards and three touchdowns and taking Denver on scoring drives of 82, 80, 80 and 60 yards. ″We’re a better team this time.″
Better than the Browns, certainly.
It doesn’t matter how they do it, the Broncos always beat Cleveland for the AFC championship, even if they don’t go on to win the NFL title.
They did it in 1987 with The Drive, a 98-yard masterpiece engineered by Elway. The next year, Earnest Byner’s fumble as he headed for the tying touchdown cost Cleveland a shot at its first Super Bowl.
This time, the Broncos needed no last-second heroics, no late reprieve. Elway made sure of that.
″This time, I’m going to get the big one,″ Coach Dan Reeves said. Reeves has been to seven Super Bowls already, more than anyone else, but he’s 0-2 there as Denver’s coach.
″We’re looking forward to going back to the Super Bowl,″ said Reeves, who played in one for Dallas and was a Cowboys assistant coach in four others. ″We’re not satisfied with just the AFC championship. We’re going to go back and, regardless of who we play, we’re going to give it everything. If it’s not enough, it’s not enough, but we’re going into the next game with the intention and the desire to win it. We feel like we can play with anybody.″
A few hours after beating Cleveland, the Broncos learned they will be playing San Francisco in the Super Bowl on Jan. 28. The defending Super Bowl champion 49ers beat Los Angeles 30-3 in the NFC Championship.
In Elway, of course, he has one of the most dangerous weapons in football.
″John Elway today was unbelievable and showed everyone what a great athlete he is,″ Reeves said.
And Winder showed what a classy player he is, filling in for injured Bobby Humphrey. An eight-year veteran headed for retirement, Winder scored twice, including a 39-yard reception from Elway that clinched it with 2:25 gone in the final quarter.
″Sammy stepped in and did a wonderful job,″ Reeves said.
It was sweet retribution for Winder, who lost his starting job to the rookie Humphrey this season. While Humphrey rushed for 1,151 yards, Winder had 800 fewer.
″I wouldn’t mind going into the game, no matter what the situation,″ Winder said beforehand. ″If I get the chance, I’ll try to make the best of it.″
He got the chance when Humphrey went out with bruised ribs in the second quarter. He made the best of it.
″I haven’t lost confidence all year,″ Winder said. ″This is simply sweet, to come in here and play today. This win today is by far the sweetest I hope to have.″
As always, Elway got the best of Cleveland’s defense, which surrendered 67 points in its two playoff games.
And he burned the man he said he wanted to get, cornerback Frank Minnifield. Both Winder and Michael Young beat Minnifield for touchdowns.
″Until the whistle blows, I expect to cover my man,″ Minnifield said. ″As soon as one play is over, my thought process goes to the next play. They don’t pay me to make evaluations, they pay me to cover wide receivers.″
Young, signed away from the Rams as a Plan B free agent in March, escaped a bump by Minnifield at the line midway through the second quarter. He was not picked up when Minnifield slipped and was 10 yards behind the defense when he caught the scambling Elway’s pass at the 30.
Young eluded Minnifield’s diving tackle and scored his first playoff touchdown, making it 10-0.
″I can’t imagine having a day like this,″ said Young, who had 123 yards on his two catches. ″It’s a dream come true.″
Winder’s 39-yard reception came on a simple slant-in on which Minnifield was two steps behind.
″Sammy just beat the coverage and all I had to do was get the ball there,″ Elway said.
After the final gun, the Broncos went into the locker room, then returned to the field, waving their helmets and saluting the fans. They were mobbed by photographers and reporters.
″We wanted to give something back to the fans,″ Reeves said.
As if the AFC West champions’ domination through most of the game wasn’t enough.
Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar struggled against the No. 1 defense in the AFC.
Elway, meanwhile, was sensational.
Coming off his worst season since he was a rookie, he hit 20 of 36 passes, led the Broncos in rushing with 39 yards on five carries and was named the game’s most valuable player. His scrambling offset Cleveland’s pass rush and his passing on the run was as sharp as ever. He drew a key defensive holding penalty as an intended receiver to set up one touchdown, and he even saved a touchdown - albeit only briefly - by forcing Browns safety Felix Wright out of bounds on the 1-yard-line after a Denver fumble.
″When he is out there running around, you can’t cover anybody that long,″ defensive back Mark Harper said of Elway. ″You give anybody that kind of time, and somebody is going to come open.″
The AFC Central champion Browns could have gone quietly after being so outclassed in the first half. But, down 10-0, Kosar came alive, leading Cleveland 79 yards in eight plays, including a 16-yard scramble on third down, on the first drive of the third quarter.
He connected on a 27-yard pass to Brian Brennan, who beat Wymon Henderson to the left corner of the end zone for his first touchdown this season.
Brennan also made a diving catch for a 10-yard score late in the period.
Denver came back after Cleveland’s first score, sparked again by Elway and Young. After scrambling, Elway found Young behind Hanford Dixon on the left sideline for a 53-yard gain. Then they turned to Winder.
Winder showed he has something left, running for 22 yards on an 80-yard drive that Elway capped with a 5-yard pass to Orson Mobley over linebacker David Grayson. Mobley’s first touchdown of the year made it 17-7.
Winder, whose best game this season came when he ran for 92 yards against Indianapolis - after Humphrey hurt his ribs - scored on a 7-yard run with 4:19 left in the quarter. Elway’s 25-yard scramble and a 15-yard spearing penalty on Kyle Kramer on the play keyed the drive.
Facing a 24-7 deficit, the Browns began making big plays. Kosar completed passes of 27 yards to Reggie Langhorne, 15 to Lawyer Tillman and 16 to Webster Slaughter before Brennan’s second TD.
Two plays later, Al Baker forced Melvin Bratton’s fumble and Wright picked it up at the 27. He returned it to the 1 and Tim Manoa’s 2-yard run made it 24-21.
That was Cleveland’s last gasp and the Browns fell to 0-3 when reaching the final step before the Super Bowl.
On the first possession of the fourth quarter, Elway found Vance Johnson for 23 yards, then scrambled before finding Johnson for a leaping catch for 20 more yards. Winder, who scored the winnning touchdown on a 20-yard reception against the Browns in 1988, got the winning score two plays later.
David Treadwell added two more field goals for the final score.