When the Cleveland Browns advanced to the AFC Championship game after the 1986 season, it was a welcome change.
After dominating the NFL for decades, the Browns had fallen on hard times.
The franchise regularly appeared in title games from their founding through the 1960s.
However, the 1970s and early 1980s were bleak as the Browns made the postseason only four times in that span.
Then came the breakthrough.
Assistant coach Marty Schottenheimer replaced Sam Rutigliano halfway through the 1984 season.
In 1985, Schottenheimer turned things around quickly and got the organization back on track.
A 5-11 record in ‘84 became 8-8 in 1985 with a near playoff win against the Miami Dolphins.
1986 would become one of the best and most memorable years in Browns history.
The team reached new heights and rode that success to the postseason.
Then, a heart stopping, two overtime victory over the Jets in the Divisional Round made way for a heartbreaking loss the following week.
On the verge of making the franchise’s first Super Bowl, Cleveland let it slip away when John Elway engineered a drive for the ages.
This is the story of “The Drive.”
On this date in 1987, John Elway and the Broncos use “The Drive” to win the AFC title game over the Browns.
Elway and the Broncos would go on to lose Super Bowl XXI to the Giants. pic.twitter.com/IkpTvhSpCG
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 11, 2021
1986 in a Nutshell
Cleveland had a rough start to begin the 1986 season.
In their first three games, the team played defending Super Bowl champion Chicago in Week 1, then Houston and Cincinnati.
The Browns lost to Chicago and the Bengals and were sitting at 1-2 when they faced the Lions in Week 4.
Cleveland got back on track by taking down Detroit and winning their next two games.
This included a Week 5 victory at Pittsburgh, the Browns first in the Steel City in 16 attempts.
In Week 10, the Dolphins came to town and Cleveland exacted some revenge from the ‘85 playoff loss when they defeated Miami 26-16.
After losing to the Raiders in Week 11, the Browns beat the Steelers again the following week to begin a streak of five straight wins to end the season.
Cleveland’s final record was 12-4.
Coach Marty Schottenheimer, thank you for our time with you and the original Cleveland Browns in 1986 and 1987.
“There’s a gleam, men. There’s a gleam.”
The Drive, January 11, 1987
AFC Championship Game
😢 #RIP Coach Marty Schottenheimer 🙏🏽💔#browns #majoreverett39 pic.twitter.com/bUOZxnOeOY
— ValarieWithAnA 💕💚 (@ValarieBEverett) February 9, 2021
Those 12 wins were the most the franchise had in their NFL existence and matched their total from their first two years in the All America Football Conference.
The Browns have not reached the 12 win plateau since.
In their Divisional playoff game against the Jets, both teams were tied at 10 by the end of the first half.
Then, with the Browns down by three late in the game, kicker Mark Moseley made a 22-yard field goal attempt to send the game into overtime.
Moseley missed a 23-yard chip shot in the first overtime, but atoned for his mistake when he made an attempt in the second overtime period.
The Browns held on to win the Marathon by the Lake 23-20.
Sunday, January 11, 1987
The following Sunday, the Denver Broncos traveled to Cleveland to face the Browns in the AFC Championship game.
Denver had defeated the Patriots the previous week 22-17.
The Broncos had finished 11-5 in ‘86 and were looking to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1977.
The Browns were looking to capitalize on their great season by advancing to the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Cleveland was the first team on the scoreboard when quarterback Bernie Kosar completed a six-yard touchdown pass to running back Herman Fontenot.
That play put a cap on an 86 yard drive by Cleveland.
In the second quarter, Denver kicker Rich Karlis converted a 19-yard field goal and Broncos running back Gerald Willhite scored on a four-yard run to put Denver up 10-3.
Moseley kicked a 29-yard field goal to tie the game just before the half.
Karlis’ 26-yard field goal with 2:50 left were the only points scored in the third quarter, putting the Broncos up by three.
In the fourth quarter, Moseley made a 24-yard field goal.
Kosar later found receiver Brian Brennan for a 48-yard touchdown.
— TJ C. (@TJc_NECS) January 27, 2021
That put Cleveland up 20-13 with 5:43 left in the game.
On the following kickoff, Broncos return man Ken Bell made a costly error when he let the kick get away from him.
He finally fell on the pigskin at the Denver two-yard line.
That meant the Broncos would have to travel 98 yards if they hoped to score a touchdown and send the game into overtime.
Just before the Broncos began their march to history, Denver guard Keith Bishop made a declaration in the huddle before the first snap of the drive.
“We got ’em right where we want ’em!”
Meanwhile, Browns fans were shifting nervously in their seats.
They were fully aware that Broncos quarterback John Elway was capable of pulling a rabbit out of his team’s collective hat.
On first and ten at their own two, Elway faked a handoff to Willhite and instead hit running back Sammy Winder for a five-yard completion.
Winder picked up three yards on a pitch on second and five from their seven.
On the following play, Winder rushed for two yards to get a fresh set of downs.
After another Winder three-yard run, Elway scrambled for 11 yards which brought up another first down.
The next two plays were passes and Elway connected with running back Steve Sewell for 22 yards and then receiver Steve Watson for 12.
That placed Denver at the Browns 40 yard line at the two-minute warning.
📺 Mystery Football Theater is LIVE 📺
1986 AFC Championship – Broncos vs Browns "The Drive"
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) February 5, 2019
With the crowd fully on their feet, there was tension in the air.
Elway missed receiver Vance Johnson on first down and was sacked by Cleveland’s Dave Puzzuoli for an eight-yard loss on second down.
The Cleveland faithful were now in full roar, hoping for two more stops to propel their team to their ultimate goal.
It didn’t take long for the air to go out of the stadium.
On third down, Elway found receiver Mark Jackson for 20 yards.
With first and ten at the Browns 28, Elway missed on a pass attempt to Watson.
On second down, Elway pitched to Sewell for 14 yards and a first down.
Elway’s pass was incomplete to Watson again on the following play.
On second and ten with 42 seconds remaining, Elway was flushed from the pocket and scrambled nine yards to the Cleveland five-yard line.
Then, on third and one, Elway found Jackson for a five-yard touchdown pass with 37 seconds remaining.
Karlis’ extra point attempt was good and the game was tied.
Elway and “The Drive.” Mark Jackson’s TD for the win. pic.twitter.com/UwJSoa3xtR
— Another Jason in TX (@mondiesman) March 5, 2021
Overtime and Aftermath
The Broncos forced Cleveland to punt on their first possession of overtime.
Elway went to work and again drove his team down the field.
On a third and 12 play near midfield, Elway found Watson for a 28-yard completion.
Two Winder carries then brought the ball to the Browns 16 yard line.
Karlis put a dagger straight through Cleveland’s heart when he barely made a 33-yard field goal.
The Browns season promptly ended with a 23-20 loss.
After John Elway completed The Drive and the comeback win at Cleveland, Sports Illustrated's execs said "Get me that kicker on the cover!" pic.twitter.com/RRZS3PQbQZ
— scott pianowski (@scott_pianowski) February 23, 2019
Two weeks later, the Broncos were humiliated by the New York Giants.
Their 39-20 loss sent them packing and they would have to try again in 1987.
It just so happened that both the Browns and Broncos met again in the same game one year later.
That contest would also end in Cleveland heartbreak with “The Fumble.”
There are some football pundits to this day that wonder if the Browns were still gassed from their two-overtime affair against the Jets the week before.
Two overtime games in two weeks are enough to wilt any team of professionals.
However, you won’t catch any of the Browns players from that day making excuses for why they lost.
They were expected to go out and give it their all and they did.
Although they came up short, the ‘86 team will forever be remembered as one of the most exciting and talented Browns teams in franchise history.