Golden Football Magazine
NFL Championship Games
This series covers the history of the NFL through the prism of its yearly championship games.
Note: The gray boxes contain asides that provide interesting material but could be skipped without losing the continuity of the article.
Super Bowl XXI - New York Giants vs Denver Broncos: Pregame
101,063 at the Rose Bowl on a clear 77° day saw the offenses prevail in the first quarter before the defenses rose up in the second.

Quarter 1

Denver won the toss and elected to receive. Gene Lang returned the kickoff 23y to the 24. QB John Elway showed his escapability right away, evading Lawrence Taylor's blitz for 10y and a first down. After runs by Sammy Winder and Gerald Willhite gained only three, Elway found WR Mark Jackson over the middle for 24y and a first down at the NY 39. Winder touched the ball on the next three plays, taking a safety-valve pass over the middle for five, then running for 3y before getting stuffed for no gain by LB Carl Banks on third-and-two. So barefooted Rich Karlis booted a 48y field goal, the longest in Super Bowl history. Broncos 3 Giants 0 (10:51)

Elway passes as George Martin rushes.
Karlis kicked to the four, and Lee Rouson returned 18y. Phil Simms outdid Elway by leading a touchdown drive during which he hit six-for-six. The Giants' plan was to throw play-action passes to blunt the rush and hold in the Denver linebackers who were "all gassed up to get Joe Morris," as Parcells put it. It was not Bill's custom to plan the first series, but that day he planned the first play–a pass to WR Lionel Manuel. With the Broncos in the coverage the Giants expected, Manuel split to the right and cut across the middle for a 17y gain. The second planned play was successful when Simms hit TE Mark Bavaro for nine more.
Simms on Bavaro: "If there was a signature guy on the Giants who made a dif­ference that season, it was Mark. Whether blocking or catching passes, he was so dynamic it was incredible. We had Joe Morris running the ball well, and we had a solid offensive line, but Mark added a tremendous dimension to our passing game that lifted our whole team over the top. Mark didn't speak, but his personality was so strong because he was silent."

Simms back to pass.
The third play was supposed to be a seam pass up the middle to RB Lee Rouson. But the sideline sent in a running play, making Simms think, "Oh, man, they chick­ened out a little." So Simms handed to RB Joe Morris off the right side for 11 and another first down at the Denver 41. The march lost steam on the next two plays–a 2y outlet pass to Morris and Joe's 11y scamper that was negated by a holding penalty to make it 2nd-and-18. Morris immediately got eight back to make the third down more manageable.
Simms: "Denver moved Karl Mecklenburg, its top linebacker, around on de­fense, hoping he'd stop Morris on the run. In preparing for the game, ... the coaches decided to run away from him to give us better match-ups. So early in the game, we shifted Bavaro before each hike, because we knew Mecklenburg would follow him, and then we'd run Morris to the side Mecklenburg had been on. It worked well."
Mecklenburg said, "They changed their whole offensive attack. Pass first, run second. It surprised us. We thought they would try to establish the running game, but they went against their tendencies, and they did a good job of it."
Simms fired to WR Stacy Robinson on the left sideline to move the chains to the 23. LBs Karl Mecklenbergand Ricky Hunley stopped Morris for no gain, but Simms came right back with a 17y connection to Bavaro over the middle. Phil then found his other tight end, Zeke Mowatt, running free in the middle of the end zone after going in motion. Raul Allegre kicked the PAT. Giants 7 Broncos 3 (5:27)
In their 19-16 loss to the Giants during the season, the Broncos had stacked their defense to stop the run and had their cornerbacks cover the wide receivers man-to-man. The disrespect that showed for his passing game annoyed Simms. He told his receivers, "Nobody's giving us any credit. Let's just come out of the gates, and I'll get the ball to you." He lobbied offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt to change tactics to start out passing. "I knew the matchups were in our favor," Simms recalled: "I knew they would have a hard time covering Bavaro. And even though our wideouts weren't well-recognized, I knew Denver would have a hard time covering them one-on-one."
Phil also remembered: "I remember looking at the players during our first drive and thinking these guys are choking to death. They were excited and nervous and affected by the heat and importance of the game, so our whole team was gasping for air. When I came to the line of scrimmage, I saw that Denver's defensive players also were red-faced and breathing as hard as they could, trying to get air but hyperventilating."

Phil Simms passes as Tom Jackson rushes.
Denver answered right back with a six-play 58y drive to retake the lead as Elway hit five-of-five. Ken Bell started the ball rolling with a 28y return to the 42. The first three plays brought three completions: Winder for 14, 6'5" 270lb TE Orson Mob­ley for 11, and Winder again for nine on a screen after which the Giants were penalized half the distance to the goal for a late hit out of bounds by LB Harry Carson, then another half the distance for unsportsmanlike conduct on Lawrence Taylor. The result was first-and-goal from the six.
On the sideline, Simms was thinking, "That was uncharacteristic of us, being called for dumb penalties. That was one time when I could say, 'Wow, the setting and circumstances are affecting some of our players.' All of a sudden we were doing stupid things."
CB Elvis Patterson and Banks dumped RB Steve Sewell for a loss of three. Elway negated that with a strike to WR Vance Johnson over the middle to the four. John then called a quarterback draw and dove into the end zone as the defenders backpedaled into coverage. It was the first touchdown the G-men had allowed in the postseason. Karlis converted. Broncos 10 Giants 7 (2:06)

Lawrence Taylor and Carl Banks smother Sammy Winder.
The Giants' next possession ended the teams' streak of three straight scoring pos­sessions. Following Rouson's 16y return to the 23, Simms flipped a flat pass to Morris for seven. Joe then gained four for a first down at the 34. Mecklenburg struck again on the next snap, dumping RB Ottis Anderson for a yard loss.
End Q1: Broncos 10 Giants 7

Elways scores on quarterback draw.

Quarter 2

The defenses prevailed during this period, starting with the Orange Crush forcing a punt after Morris gained 8y, and Simms overthrew WR Phil McConkey down the middle for the first incompletion of the game by either quarterback. Sean Landeta boomed a 59y punt into the end zone.
Years later, McConkey was still bothered by the incompletion. "I came in motion–came up about six yards. The defense expected me to stop and turn around to try to pick up the first down. I stutter-stepped the defensive back at six or sesven yards, and he squatted on me, which means he's coming up because he thinks I'm going to stop there, and then I take off. He sticks out his right leg and catches my leg enough to where I stumble and go to the ground. Now remember, the safeties were split, so there was space the size of the Grand Canyon down the middle of the field. Simms threw the ball, and it went incomplete. I was outraged because it should have been a penalty, and it should have been a 60-yard touchdown. That sticks with me more than the three successful plays I had. I still wake up some­times at night wondering could I have done something more to avoid him tripping me, which is illegal by the way."
Taylor dropped Lang for a 2y loss. After throwing an incompletion to Mobley, El­way scrambled to avoid Marshall and hit Johnson deep down the middle past FS Herb Welch for 54y to the NY 28. John threw three more passes: a 6y screen to Winder and another six-yarder to Mobley sandwiched around a throwaway to Willhite. On 1st-and-10 at the 16, Lang gained 4y, then took a pass for four more. On 3rd-and-two, Elway hit Sewell for 7y to make it 1st-and-goal at the one. The Broncos went to their goal line offense with three tackles and two tight ends. That's when the Big Blue Wrecking Crew rose up and changed the momentum of the game. The Giants felt they had the best set of linebackers in the NFL, and the next three plays provided a great illustration to bolster that claim.

Safeties Herb Welch and Kenny Hill tackle Vance Johnson after 54y gain.
1st down: Elway rolls right on a run/pass option and sees the cornerback come up, but before he can throw to the open receiver, Taylor races across the field from the left side and tackles him for a loss of one.
2nd down: Carson stuffs Willhite on a quick trap up the middle.
3rd down: After going right and up the middle, Elway pitches to Winder running left, but Banks, remembering that the only touchdown the Broncos scored in their meeting in November was on a pitch to Winder around left end, bursts through and nails him for a loss of four.
4th down: Karlis pushes a 23y chip-shot wide right from the left hashmark. After kicking the longest field goal in Super Bowl history, he now had the shortest miss.

Elways driven out of bounds for a loss of one.
Coach Reeves said afterward that he called the three plays starting with first down on the one. "I thought they were good calls. As it turned out, I wish I had all three of them over again. On first and goal, it was a running play with John rolling out. I thought it was a good call because we had an extra blocker in front of him. I felt we should have punched it in there, but somebody missed a block. So we lost a yard and on second down, we tried to take advantage of their blitz with a trap, but they stopped that. The third down was a sweep, and the Giants made a great play on it. Then we missed the field goal."
G Keith Bishop admitted: "On the (second down) play up the middle, I didn't get over the inside backer fast enough, and they ran a good stunt through it. Then we ran a toss to the left, and somebody came off a block and made the tackle. It was just three good defensive plays."
Carl Banks remembers Carson and Taylor being "pissed off" that Denver had gotten that far into Giant territory. "We were a pretty prideful defense, and we were pretty ticked off that they were there. I don't remember if it was Harry or Lawrence, but one of them said, 'We are not going to let them score a touch­down.' ... We were very fortunate to have different guys make plays. We were all jacked up, and you know, taking on their best, and we were able to repel their charge and come away without scoring a touchdown."
"On the third down play, I line up, and I just said to myself, 'This guy's not gonna block me, whether the ball's coming to me or not.' I beat him at the line of scrim­mage and tracked the ball down in the backfield."
Bill Belichick had Taylor in effect play safety in the goal-line defense with Car­son in the middle. "Taylor was the ultimate free safety on the goal line," said Bill. "When you have all six guys in front of you, there's really nobody that could block him. He could just have a free run on pretty much everything without having any blockers. And he was fast. Harry was the perfect middle linebacker on the goal line. He was usually on the strong side of the formation, where he had to read plays and take on plays."
The Giants moved from the 20 to their 47 before having to punt. Simms stayed hot up the middle: Bavaro for 12 and Robinson for eight. After RB Maurice Carthon gained one and Morris got four for another first down, Simms flipped to Carthon for just a yard. Then DE Freddie Gilbert held Morris to a yard. An incompletion to Robinson under pressure forced a punt, Landeta booting 38y to Willhite who made a fair catch at the 15.
Having been thwarted on the goal line, the Broncos abandoned their running game. Elway dropped back to pass on the next 24 snaps. They would finish with just 52y rushing, 27 by Elway.

Elway escapes pressure.
The G-men rose up and pushed the Broncos backwards. First, Elway fled the pocket and was brought down from behind by DE Leonard Marshall for a loss of two. The next play became the most controversial of the game. Elway threw low down the middle to TE Clarence Kay, who appeared to make a shoestring catch. But the official ruled incomplete. The play was reviewed, but the video was incon­clusive. So the call stood.
Reeves after the game on the Kay incompletion: "I wear glasses, but even from where I was standing even I could see he caught the ball six inches off the ground. It was a very big play because instead of being out of there and on a drive, on the next play John got thrown for a safety."
Simms, watching from the Giants sideline: "I thought Kay caught it near the ground as he rolled over."
Elway afterward: "Clarence said he caught that ball." On the safety: "They had a great push up the middle. I just couldn't find anyone to throw to. I had nowhere to go. I just had to eat the football."
Vance Johnson: "There was something about the air that came out of us when John Elway threw the ball to Clarence Kay. He caught the ball and it was a foot off the ground, but they called it a dropped pass. We knew that was a big turning point."
When action resumed, DE George Martin tackled backpedaling Elway in the end zone for a safety. Broncos 10 Giants 9 (2:46)

Giants celebrate their safety.
Giants DE Leonard Marshall recalled: "We knew–Lawrence, Carl, George Martin, Jimmy Burt, and I–that we had to push the pocket and get in Elway's face. We knew that we could not allow him to escape the pocket or be able to get outside the pocket and throw the ball up in the air and hope that one of the guys run up underneath it. So we wanted to harass the hell out of him. We wanted him to be thinking about who's coming. Is it 70? Is it 56? Is it 58? Is it 75? I mean, we wanted that guy's head on a swivel looking at us more than looking downfield."
Giants director of pro personnel Tim Rooney: "We had a great, great front seven. Leonard Marshall didn't always have great years, but '86 was one of them. Marshall had to be prodded some, and our defensive line coach, Lamar Leachman, did that. George Martin wasn't real physical but was a real good athlete. ... And, for a nose tackle, Jim Burt was a pretty damn good inside pass rusher."
Mike Horan punted the free kick that the Giants let bounce to the NY 28. TE Bobby Micho dumped returner Tom Flynn back at the 25. Simms threw three straight passes, completing the first one for a loss of a yard to Morris and, after the two-minute warning, a second one for 7y on a screen to Carthon. Phil then over­threw Bavaro over the middle. So Landeta punted 41y to Willhite, who returned 9y to the Denver 37 with 1:05 on the clock. With time to get at least a field goal, Elway threw to Sewell, who dropped the ball. Then John scrambled to the left and found WR Steve Watson across the field for 31y to the NY 32. He then threw a shovel pass to Willhite around the right side for 11y and called his second timeout with 0:43 left. When play resumed, Sewell muffed another pass, which at least stopped the clock. Another incompletion was wiped out by a 5y offside penalty on the Giants. Elway twice threw incomplete, first to Willhite, then to Mobley in the end zone. So on fourth down, Karlis attempted a 34y field goal that sailed wide right again.
Simms knelt down to end a frustrating half for the Broncos. They led by a point when they should have led by 11.
End Q2: Broncos 10 Giants 9
The Giants had passed on nine of their 12 first-down plays, and Simms com­pleted all his passes. "It surprised us," recalled Denver LB Karl Mecklenberg.


Gene Lang


John Elways hands off to Steve Sewell.


Gerald Willhite


Rich Karlis


Joe Morris on the move


Phil Simms back to pass


Dennis Smith tackles Mark Bavaro.


Zeke Mowatt


Steve Wilson tackles Stacy Robinson.


Broncos gang tackle.


Mark Bavaro tackled by Steve Foley and Randy Robbins


Elway eludes Leonard Marshall.


Sean Landeta


Joe Morris runs.


Marshall smashes Elway.


Simms passes past Simon Fletcher.


Orson Mobley


Simms hands off.

 


Clarence Kay

 

 


Mike Horan


Tom Flynn


Steve Watson