Broncos quarterback John Elway had a team steamrolling to the playoffs, a new offense to showcase the firearm strapped to his right shoulder and a hot-selling video about all his fourth-quarter comebacks. It's a full-length feature, because 32 times - most in NFL history - Elway has pulled off fourth-quarter miracles.
On Sunday, Elway had the ball on his 13-yard line with no timeouts and 2:59 left, trailing by a touchdown to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "With Elway and it just a seven-point game, it was definitely scary," Bucs receiver Courtney Hawkins said. "We're on the sideline praying, `Please, don't let him do it again.' "
You almost could sense Broncos fans who had not made it to Mile High Stadium on Sunday reaching for a blank videotape after Elway heaved a 40-yard pass to Arthur Marshall and completed two other passes to the 34. But happiness is being a VCR repairman in Denver today.
That's because this time Elway did not pull it out, and the Bucs defense held on to pull off an improbable 17-10 win over the Broncos. It was the biggest win in at least three seasons for the Bucs, for whom Christmas came a day late when Glyn Milburn fumbled three punt returns and lost two of them. Despite losing, Denver (9-6) has at least a wild-card spot in the playoffs - thanks to losses by Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Raiders.
The victory was the second in three weeks by the Bucs (5-10), who could tie the fourth-best record in team history with a win at home next week against San Diego.
The upset also ended a mind-boggling 20-game losing streak by the Bucs to AFC teams on the road. "We beat the Denver Broncos today on your turf, in your house with a healthy team, and we weren't healthy and we kicked your butt," Sam Wychesaid, directing his comments to a Denver reporter. "You need more? And I wish it well. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."
Tampa Bay overcame a shaky start by quarterback Craig Erickson, who fumbled but recovered twice on the first possession. He also overcame an interception and two other certain pickoffs that were dropped by safeties Dennis Smith and Steve Atwater. Erickson steadied himself to pass for 176 yards and two TDs, ducking under a sack by Shane Dronett to find tight end Dave Moore in the end zone. The Bucs also got some help from the officials (who blew one call), Hawkins (eight catches for 105 yards) and the special teams (forced two turnovers).
Tampa Bay cornerback Roger Jones recovered a fumble and made a touchdown-saving tackle on a 54-yard punt return by Glyn Milburn. Jones forced the first turnover when he appeared to have interfered on a fair catch signaled by Milburn in the third quarter. But Milburn fumbled on the play, and Jones recovered to set up the Bucs second touchdown - a 14-yard TD pass from Erickson to Hawkins. "He threw up his hands late, and that's why I was so close to him," Jones said. "After I backed up, he dropped the ball. I was trying to get out of the way, and the ball bounced right to me."
The Broncos settled for a field goal to cut the lead to 17-10. Elway appeared to have the fourth-quarter comeback well at hand, but his first attempt was sabotaged when Martin Mayhew stripped Cedric Tillman after a 15-yard completion and safety Joe King recovered to end the drive at the Tampa Bay 26 with 10:35 left.
The Broncos would have had the ball back at midfield after Milburn's 36-yard return. But John Lynch forced Milburn to fumble again, and Barney Bussey pounced on it.
The play set up a 41-yard field-goal attempt by Michael Husted that would have given the Bucs a 10-point cushion with 5:13 to play.
But Husted, who had made a 48-yarder, left it wide right, and the stage was set for Elway.
He began by completing a 40-yard pass to Marshall. But then the Bucs shifted out of a prevent zone defense and went back to man-to-man and rushing four down-linemen, ruining Elway's highlight film. Okay, roll tape. Elway with a first down at the Tampa Bay 34. No timeouts. Trailing by a TD. Two minutes left.
He is sacked by Ray Seals for no gain. He can't find a receiver and scrambles out of bounds. Ninety-six seconds. Elway's pass incomplete to Marshall. Fourth down. What drama! What comeback? Elway throws incomplete again.
The Bucs start kneeling, but this time it is to kill the clock. "This time, our prayers were answered," Hawkins said.
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1993