It’s been a quarter-century since John Elway, Terrell Davis and the rest of the 1997 Broncos captured Denver’s first Super Bowl win. The ’97 Broncos etched their names into NFL lore after dethroning the defending champion Packers while becoming the AFC’s first Super Bowl champion in 13 years.
The legacy of the ’97 Broncos will be honored this fall as the team plans to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its accomplishment. The team will welcome back players, coaches and staff members from that team for Denver’s Week 7 home game against the New York Jets. A halftime celebration of the ’97 Broncos will be part of the day’s festivities.
“The 25th anniversary of the Broncos’ first Super Bowl championship is a special occasion deserving of a tribute that celebrates how much the 1997 team means to our organization and fans,” said Broncos president & CEO Joe Ellis. “During an unforgettable season, that iconic team overcame tremendous adversity to deliver a long-awaited World Championship to our fans as double-digit underdogs in Super Bowl XXXII. Along with all of Broncos Country, we’re excited to honor the many great players, coaches and staff from the 1997 Super Bowl-champion Broncos to highlight this year’s Homecoming Weekend.”
Despite a 12-4 record, the ’97 Broncos had to win three playoff games — and road games in Kansas City and Pittsburgh — just to reach the Super Bowl. Once there, the Broncos played like the team that was a double-digit favorite. After allowing a Packers score on the game’s opening drive, Denver scored 17 unanswered points behind Davis’ running and a defense that forced two turnovers of league MVP Brett Favre.
“The NFC’s [mentality] was, ‘Just show up and you’ll win the Super Bowl.’ And we felt all that,” Davis told CBS Sports last summer. “Every single doubter was out there saying, ‘same old Broncos.’ And we knew we were a totally different team. We were built different. We were more of an NFC style team with how we ran the ball. We were physical, and our defense was really good.”
The game threatened to be a runaway before Davis sustained a migraine that kept him sidelined for most of the second quarter. The Packers rallied to tie the score at the start of the third quarter, setting the stage for one of the most dramatic finishes in Super Bowl history. With Davis back in the huddle, the Broncos mounted a go-ahead drive that featured Elway’s helicopter run that gave momentum back to Denver. Green Bay countered with Favre’s third touchdown pass of the game, but was unable to do anything else on its next two possessions.
Denver moved ahead for good when Davis scored his third touchdown of the day (a Super Bowl record) with 1:47 remaining. The Broncos’ defense then forced three straight incompletions from Favre to seal Denver’s 31-24 triumph. Elway was lifted into the air by his teammates, while Davis won MVP honors after rushing for 157 yards.
The Broncos quickly went from David to Goliath. The ’98 Broncos stormed out to a 13-0 start, finished 14-2, then defeated the Dolphins and Jets in the playoffs by a combined score of 61-13. Against the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, the Broncos cruised to a 34-19 win to become the seventh team to win back-to-back titles. Elway was named MVP in what his final NFL game.
“We are one of the greatest teams to ever play,” Davis said. “When they do the rankings of the top 25 teams of all time, we’re always in there. I think last time I saw we were in the teens or something like that. We’re a team that could go play in any era [because] we weren’t a gimmick team. Sometimes you see a team that runs the Wildcat where they might be successful because they were new and no one saw that. Now you’ve got the RPOs where when they first started doing it, defenses couldn’t stop it. … We didn’t have anything gimmicky like that.
“We had really, really good players. We had outstanding coaching. We had a solid system. We had a combination of really unselfish guys who played for each other who didn’t really care who got the credit, and that’s rare. And we had a singular focus. We were the Patriots before the Patriots. They talk about the Patriot Way, well we had the Bronco Way. We had players who didn’t buy into that, and Mike [Shanahan] moved them out of there.”
Shanahan’s Broncos were largely a collection of overlooked yet motivated players. Along with Davis, the Broncos’ key offensive players in those years included undrafted receiver Rod Smith, journeyman receiver Ed McCaffrey, tight end Shannon Sharpe (a former seventh-round pick), fullback Howard Griffith (ninth-round pick), linemen Mark Schlereth (10th-round pick), Tom Nalen (seventh-round pick) and Tony Jones (undrafted). Defensively, the Broncos had a Hall of Fame safety in Steve Atwater, a nasty linebacker in Bill Romanowski, and an elite pass-rusher in Neil Smith who came over from the rival Chiefs in order to win a Super Bowl.
“We didn’t have a lot of big names,” Davis said. “We had John, but John was at the end. And he didn’t care about throwing for 5,000 yards. He just wanted to win.”