Friday, January 17, 2014
January 17, 1988: The Fumble That Ended A Super Bowl Dream
While the ending will be remembered much more than the beginning, a variety of miscues put the Browns in a hole early that would be hard for even the greatest team to recover from. The first 14 points of the game had Denver capitalizing on turnovers. The first started with Browns return man Gerald McNeil being tackled at his own 12 yard line then moments later Kosar threw a pick that landed in the waiting arms of linebacker Freddie Mitchell. It took no time for Elway to capitalize on the pick as he found Ricky Nattiel on a 8 yard strike to give the Broncos the early lead. On the ensuing drive Cleveland's fullback Kevin Mack fumbled the ball then watched Denver's Gene Lang rattle off a 42 yard run on the next play that put the Broncos in a first and goal situation. It looked like the Browns had made a successful goal line stand when Elway was forced to throw it away on a 3rd and short but a penalty against the Browns gave them new life and put the ball at the 1. Running back Steve Sewell finished it off and extended the lead to 14-0.
When the teams returned to work in the second half a turnaround began for the Browns. This time it would be them capitalizing on a miscue as defensive back Felix Wright picked Elway off just four plays into the half. Moments later Kosar found Reggie Langhorne on a 18 yard catch and score to narrow the gap to 21-10 then Elway tried to remove the wind from the sails by unloading an 80 yard bomb to Mark Jackson that gave them those points right back. Down 28-10 some teams might have been already planning their vacations but not that team from Cleveland. They would no go down without a fight.
The Cleveland comeback began to mount with a pair of touchdowns by Byner. The first, a 32 yard pass from Kosar and the second a 4 yard rush that suddenly narrowed the lead to 28-24. Before the third quarter came to a close Denver's kicker Rich Karlis gave them a little breathing room by tacking on a field goal from 38 yards out that pushed the score to 31-28. While some breathing room was granted there was still a full quarter to play and now was not the time to breathe.
The Cleveland team that refused to go away finally did knot things up at 31-31 with a little more than 10 minutes left to play in the fourth. The game tying drive engineered by Kosar saw him move the ball 87 yards before finding Webster Slaughter in the endzone on a four yard touchdown pass. The game had instant classic written all over it at that point and more was on the way. The winning drive for Denver covered 75 yards in 5 plays. The drive included two long catches by Nattiel, then with 4:01 left on the clock Sammy Winder caught the go ahead score. it was a 20 yard strike from Elway and it would punch a ticket to the Super Bowl after the Broncos withstood the drive that looked like would surely push the game into overtime.
While the game is most remembered for that one fumble each of Byner's teammates did not look to him as the proverbial scapegoat. They knew that the earlier penalties had cost them dearly and without the efforts of Byner himself they would not had even had a chance to win that game. He had teammate after teammate come over to him in the locker room and express those feelings and at the end of the day he knew he gave all he had to bring the Browns a victory. It just wasn't in the cards.
Here's the box score: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/198801170den.htm
It was the second consecutive appearance in the Super Bowl for the Broncos but their luck ran out there with the Redskins beating them 42-10.