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Broncos Film Room: Breaking down the four greatest moments of the Pat Bowlen era

Andre Simone Avatar
June 19, 2019

It’s been a tough week in Broncos Country, as the passing of legendary owner Pat Bowlen has been at the front of everyone’s mind.

So while we still have that fire to dig deep into fullback tape and assess the best options at strong safety, this week’s film room is for Pat.

Which is why, as a tribute to Mr. B, we went through the history vaults and found the four greatest plays in his 35-year tenure as the Denver Broncos owner.

This is Broncos Film Room’s own little way to pay homage and celebrate Pat’s greatest moments as the Broncos owner. Mr. B’s teams have left us with some amazing memories; here are the four that resonated the most and how they unfolded.

The Drive

In just the third season under Bowlen, the Broncos found themselves with their back against the wall down 20-13 in Cleveland, pinned back at their own two-yard line with 5:32 left to play.

What ensued would simply be known as “The Drive,” resulting in Bowlen’s first Super Bowl appearance as an owner, his first of seven.

In this instance, it was—of course—Elway who quarterbacked the historic 15 plays and 98 yards of cool, collected brilliance that would lead Denver to the AFC title, with a mix of gutsy runs, scrambles, and precise bullets that carved up the Browns.

Two plays stood out from the drive, the first is Denver’s 3rd-and-18 conversion with 1:47 remaining. 

Up to the point, Elway and Co. had managed to move the chains methodically. However, 3rd-and-18 was different, setting the tone for what was to come with this 20-yard laser to Mark Jackson, who’d struggled to hold onto the ball previously in the game.

As you can see, Dan Reeves, who was famously known for his ground and pound approach on offense, threw in a little trickeration on the play. Despite the long down and distance, it looks like the Broncos are in a classing two-back set with two wideouts and a tight end. Actually, Denver had wide receiver Steve Watson in the backfield, putting him in motion to clear out the middle of the field.

Jackson, lined up wide left, runs a nice in-cutting route right to the sticks and does a great job of wiggling open right off the bat to beat press-coverage and gain inside leverage.

The Broncos offensive line, with the Browns only rushing three, also gave Elway solid protection, allowing the routes to unfold and Elway to step up to gun it deep.

No. 7’s bullet pass made the play happen, as did Jackson, who did a nice job finding a soft spot in the Browns coverage despite Cleveland dropping eight. 

The other play that stands out is, obviously, the touchdown that capped off the drive to tie the game up and set the Broncos up for their subsequent overtime win.

Once again, Elway found Jackson with a tight-window dime, as he stepped up and delivered an absolute laser that the Browns defense could do nothing about.

Once again, the Broncos’ coaching staff used an unconventional personnel grouping for 3rd-and-1 at the Browns five, bringing out a four-wide look with trips to the right side.

Again, a motion man was key, this time with Jackson going in motion from the slot to the left side, exposing the man coverage Cleveland was in.

With a head of steam, Denver’s No. 80 won inside leverage with ease, and Elway let rip another phenomenal pass with perfect timing, anticipation and zip.

Yes, we’ve already picked two plays, cheating our ranking system a bit, but the way in which Denver pulled off the great comeback in the hostile confines of the 1986 AFC Championship is, without debate, one of the top-two greatest moments in franchise history.

With all that context, these two amazing throws and play calls are at the top of our list as Elway and Bowlen’s reign of success really took off from there.

Elway puts it all on the line

The real debate for the top two moments came down to the Drive and Elway’s iconic third-down conversion in Super Bowl 32, arguably the most important play in franchise history for all that it meant.

With the Broncos and Green Bay Packers all tied up at 17 in the third quarter, Denver found themselves in the red zone, but had to convert to keep pace with Brett Favre and Mike Holmgren’s attack.

Already in field goal range, No. 7 didn’t want to force a throw in a four-wide look with tight end Shannon Sharpe flexed out in the slot.

With pressure coming up the middle on a stunt from just a three-man rush, Elway quickly navigated the pocket, and as soon as he reset, took off to the right with his eyes on the sticks the entire time, locked in on bringing home the franchise’s first Lombardi trophy.

Right as he approached the first-down marker, he was met by three Packers defenders, with nowhere to go.

That’s when Elway, forgetting his 37-years of age, leaped in the air, using all his might to convert the remaining half yard. One Packer defender went low, another tackled Elway’s right shoulder, which spun John around for a full 360 degrees.

All of Broncos Country held their collective breath for a brief second before the Duke landed on the right side of the sticks, unscathed.

Denver would cap the drive off with a touchdown and never look back, but none of it could’ve happened if not for the jolt that Elway gave his offense in the third quarter.

Of note, the play couldn’t have happened if not for center Tom Nalen sealing off his block to allow John to run up the middle before veering right to the sideline.

The N0. 1 defensive touchdown of the Bowlen era

Pundits who didn’t think the Broncos could beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 seemed to ignore one crucial matchup; Carolina right tackle Mike Remmers against a guy named Von Miller.

Remmers was having a fine season to that point and has been able to earn a nice living as an NFL tackle, but in that playoff run—as Miller took his game to another level—he stood no chance.

Before the play even happened, one key to the Broncos defense in stifling the Panthers attack was an adjustment made by coordinator Wade Phillips to nullify Carolina’s devastating rushing attack against nickel defenses.

To prevent that from happening, Phillips made a point of substituting safety T.J. Ward for cornerback Bradley Roby on such looks, thus countering Carolina’s three-receiver looks with three cornerbacks but still maintaining the numerical advantage up front to prevent Carolina’s running game from devouring yards against lighter nickel fronts.

However, on an obvious passing down such as this early 3rd-and-10, Phillips unleashed a rare six-defensive-back formation that confused Cam Newton and forced him to go off of his primary read.

That’s when No. 58 came into the picture for the Broncos most important defensive touchdown in the Bowlen era.

Miller attacked Remmers’ inside shoulder with his right hand only to swipe his outside arm with his left hand and instantly pounce into the backfield to take down Newton and knock the ball out all in one motion. Von wasn’t just trying to get a sack, he set out to force the big play and did. 

In fact, Miller’s immediate attempt to force the ball out made it so that he touched Newton’s face mask, which luckily wasn’t flagged.

Despite looking like they were going to bring extra pressure, another factor that confused Newton and delayed him from getting the ball out, Phillips only rushed four, and all Von needed to do was win that one-on-one matchup outside to turn the game on its head.

Malik Jackson and DeMarcus Ware were in the backfield in a hurry to jump on the loose ball and score once Von couldn’t haul in the football.

While this play occurred once Bowlen had already given up control of the team, this was still very much a Bowlen-era play. Famously, Elway declared “This one’s for Pat!” after the win and that strip sack from the game’s MVP sparked everything for the Broncos third Super Bowl championship in their history.

Champ goes 103

Picking the fourth and final play on this list wasn’t easy, with Champ Bailey’s 103-yard interception return of Tom Brady in the 2005 divisional round edging out “The Fumble.”

While “The Fumble” marked a crucial late-game miracle to put the Broncos into the Super Bowl a year after The Drive did, that was more than anything a mistake by the Browns that’ll forever be etched into the history books. While the Broncos benefitted from that play, it’s hard to truly consider it one of the great plays in Denver history.

Champ’s 103-yard interception return to put the Broncos up big and give Tom Brady and Bill Belichick their first playoff loss together is another story, and would start a trend of big wins by the Broncos at home against the Patriots dynasty. 

Up 10-6 as the third quarter was winding down, the Pats looked poised to take the lead down in the red zone on third-and-goal.

With the clock ticking, Champ and the Broncos’ defensive backs were in off coverage right at the edge of the end zone. Denver’s defensive coordinator Larry Coyer brought extra pressure up the middle, which forced Brady into an off-balance throw where the middle of the field was clogged, and the quarterback had nowhere to go but outside.

At first glance, this was a good decision by Brady, who didn’t want to force an errant pass up the middle in traffic. Going outside proved to be a massive mistake, though, because of who was in coverage there—arguably the greatest cornerback of his generation.

New England’s outside receiver looked like he was going inside but then came back to the corner and actually had outside leverage, though that’s exactly where Bailey wanted him with the sideline as an extra defender for No. 24 to exploit.

Brady was unable to put strong ball placement on the pass, putting it on the receiver’s inside shoulder rather than outside, allowing Champ to make a great grab to showcase his stellar ball-skills and take off.

This was almost a disastrous play as Bailey was run down by tight end Ben Watson, who knocked the ball out as he tackled Champ and almost forced a touchback.

This would have been just another bout of good fortune for Brady, who in those years seemed to always get bailed out by someone or something in the postseason. That wasn’t the case this time, though, as after three championships in four years Brady and Belichick got their first playoff loss with Bailey leading a tremendous defensive unit all the way to the AFC Championship.

It’s only fitting that the fourth and final play of the Bowlen era is a Champ Bailey interception since Champ will be joining Mr. B in the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2019 as a first-ballot selection.


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