The Past, Present and Future of Browns vs. Broncos

As the Cleveland Browns and Denver Broncos prepare to square off for the twenty-ninth time in history, let’s take a look back at how this matchup has gone in the past. In so doing, perhaps we can grasp a better understanding of what to expect this Saturday night at Mile High Stadium, as well as how this rivalry, if it can be called that, will go moving forward.

For starters, the Browns are older than the Broncos, with Cleveland playing its first professional football game in 1946, compared to Denver’s 1960. However, neither franchise started its journey in the NFL–the Browns were in the AAFC (All-America Football Conference) until 1950, and the Broncos had membership in the AFL (American Football League) through the 1969 season.

In 1970, the two teams could finally face off for the first time and that affair went quite well for Cleveland, who defeated Denver 27-13 on the road in late December. At the time, the Browns were the more storied and respectable of the two organizations; Cleveland had won an NFL Championship only six years prior, and in 1970, it still employed dangerous weapons every Sunday in the form of future Hall of Famers like Paul Warfield and Leroy Kelly. The Broncos, on the other hand, had only finished at .500 once, in 1962, and wouldn’t put up a winning record until 1973, when they went 7-5-2. In those early days, the Browns seemed to get the best of the Broncos more times than not, winning three of their first four matchups.

But the dynamic between Cleveland and Denver wouldn’t remain like this forever.

Beginning in 1975 and continuing through 1988, the Broncos would defeat the Browns 10 consecutive times. The two teams played in different divisions (the AFC Central compared to the AFC West), so they’ve never played each other every season. But during that 10-game stretch in the seventies and eighties though, it felt as if Denver always had Cleveland’s number. In the mid-to-late 1970s, the Broncos began to put everything together, coming in first place in their division in 1977 and 1978, making it all the way to the Super Bowl in 1977 before losing to Dallas. Tacking on a Wild Card berth in 1979 and the Broncos had gone to the postseason for three-straight years. The Browns, meanwhile, hadn’t even made the playoffs since losing to the undefeated Miami Dolphins in the Divisional Round in 1972, after which the Steel Curtain formed an impenetrable barrier to the postseason.

By 1980, though, the Steelers’ run was coming to a close and the Browns won the AFC Central at 11-5. The team returned to the playoffs in 1982, although the NFL strike that year eliminated seven games the Browns were scheduled to play. Denver, on the other hand, went through a bit of a lull after 1979, missing the postseason from 1980-82. But even though the Broncos couldn’t crack a Wild Card spot during those years, they still found a way to beat Cleveland every time the teams played.

The Broncos went 2-7 in 1982, giving them the fourth overall pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. With that pick, Denver selected offensive lineman Chris Hinton, who was eventually packaged in a trade that would land the Broncos the Colts’ number one overall selection from that draft, Stanford quarterback John Elway. And as soon as Elway signed his name on the dotted line to officially become a member of the Denver Broncos’ organization, a new era in the Broncos-Browns series took hold.

Up to that point, the Browns and Broncos had always alternated in their success–the Browns would be good when the Broncos were bad and vice versa. As soon as Denver acquired John Elway, though, both teams were on a trajectory to go deep into the playoffs simultaneously. And, as Browns fans know far too well, that trajectory worked out disproportionately well for one of these two franchises over the other.

The Broncos finished with a winning record in John Elway’s first three seasons, 1983-85. On the other side, Cleveland went 9-7 in 1983, but went a disappointing 5-11 for the 1984 season, during which the team fired former multiple-time Coach of the Year Award winner Sam Rutigliano and replaced him with Marty Schottenheimer. The next year, the Browns were back in the playoffs, behind young players like Boardman, Ohio native Bernie Kosar and 1985 Rookie of the Year, running back Kevin Mack. Strangely, the Browns made it into the playoffs that year with an 8-8 record, while the Broncos were left out despite an 11-5 win-loss total. Either way, the stars were aligning for both franchises to go to the playoffs in 1986 and, for the first time in history, the Broncos and Browns would meet in a postseason game.

The AFC Championship Game for the 1986 season was played on January 11, 1987 at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Despite playing at home, Vegas ruled the Browns a three-point underdog heading into the game.

Coincidentally, they hit the nail right on the head. To spare those reading the torture of having to relive “The Drive,” I’ll just do a quick recap. The game was back-and-forth until the end, when the Browns held a touchdown lead on Denver late in the fourth quarter. The Broncos were deep in their own territory with less than six minutes to go in the game, but John Elway led the offense 98 yards in just over five minutes and scored a touchdown to tie the game with less than a minute left. Then, in overtime, barefoot Broncos kicker Rich Karlis booted a 33-yard field goal through the uprights (despite video that seems to suggest the contrary) to give Denver the victory and a trip to Super Bowl XXI.

As if “The Drive” wasn’t torture enough for Browns fans, the very next year, Cleveland and Denver met up again in the AFC Championship Game for a rematch. In the regular season, the two teams had finished with nearly identical records, and as fate would have it, Bernie Kosar and the Browns would be given the opportunity to take another crack at John Elway and the Broncos. This was supposed to be the Browns’ year, when they would learn from what happened the season before and make it all the way to the Super Bowl. But the Broncos got off to an early lead at home and led 14-0 after one quarter of play. By halftime, the deficit was even worse, with Denver beating the Browns 21-3.

Coming out of the locker room after halftime though, Marty Schottenheimer’s bunch showed its resiliency and determination to give Northeast Ohio football fans something to cheer about. Kosar tossed an 18-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Langhorne early in the second half. The Broncos responded strongly, grabbing a TD through the air as well; John Elway completed a pass to Mark Jackson for an 80-yard score, putting Denver back out in front by 18.

But Cleveland wasn’t ready to give up yet.

Earnest Byner would revive the team’s hopes of a comeback, first catching a touchdown pass for 32 yards, then rushing the ball in for six more that same quarter. Shoeless Wonder Rich Karlis kicked a 38-yard field goal for the Broncos and the gun finally sounded on the third quarter. Heading into the fourth, Denver held a seven point advantage.

In that all-important last quarter, the team to blink first would be the Broncos, who allowed the Browns to advance to their own goal line. The drive resulted in a touchdown for Cleveland, coming in the form of a four-yard completion to second-year wide receiver Webster Slaughter. Just like that, the Browns had completely taken the air out of Mile High Stadium.

With 10:45 left in the game, the score was knotted up at 31. When they got the football back, the Broncos took the ball and drove it all the way down the field under the guidance of its franchise quarterback. And on first down at the Browns’ 20 yard-line, Elway dropped back and threw a screen to Sammy Winder, who ran up the far sideline and into the end zone. A  smiling Elway threw his hands up in the air, the Broncos celebrated around Winder and confetti fell from the sky onto the playing surface.

But Kosar and the Browns wouldn’t go down without a fight. They still had approximately four minutes to work with, and, as was indicative from the game the year before, that was more than enough time to drive the length of the football field. Cleveland aggressively moved the ball down the pitch, picking up chunks of 15 yards at a time. At the two-minute warning, the ball was at Denver’s 24-yard line. After running another play or two, the Browns were deep in the red zon and had the Broncos’ defense right where they wanted it.

Then, at the 1:12 mark, on second-and-five from about the eight-yard line, as the Browns were knocking on the door, The Play happened. I don’t think I need to explain what The Play is.

There’s a reason January 17, 1988 is a date which will live in infamy for as long as Browns fans who witnessed it walk the earth. It can be summed up in three words: Ernest Byner fumble. Cleveland had the Broncos’ defense on the ropes and were in prime position to punch it in and even up the score (or maybe even go for two and the win). But instead, Byner lost the ball, and the game was essentially over. 

The Fumble (sorry)

Final score: Broncos 38, Browns 33.

I really hated to drag out that game so much, a game that led to such a terrible conclusion. But when it comes to telling the story of Browns vs. Broncos, that game is essential. Without it, there would be far less stigma surrounding the Broncos in Cleveland. The next season proved to be anticlimactic for both teams, as the Broncos missed the playoffs at 8-8 and the Browns lost in the Wild Card Round to Houston.

As it would turn out, these two organizations would meet in the AFC Championship Game once more, in the 1989 season. By this time, Cleveland was desperate to win before its window with the current nucleus of players closed. Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer was already gone and new coach Bud Carson led the team back to Mile High Stadium to face off with Elway and the Broncos one more time. Denver was anxious itself to return to the Super Bowl and win it this time, after having lost two under Elway and three overall.

Cleveland played valiantly against Denver, but the Broncos were the better team. In the third quarter, the Browns got to within three points of Denver’s total, but the Broncos kept scoring and ending up winning the game, 37-21.

In doing so, that era of Browns’ history came to a close. Never again would the team make it so close to the Super Bowl, only to have it snatched away again and again, by the same opponent every time.

In 1990, the Browns finished in fourth place, Bud Carson was fired and that reign of football terror on the shores of Lake Erie was over. On the other side, Denver went on to get blown out in the Super Bowl to the 49ers after defeating Cleveland in the 1989 AFC Championship Game and wouldn’t finally win the chip until 1997 and 1998. Surprisingly, the Browns beat the Broncos in the regular season in both 1989 and 1990, both at home and on the road, with the loss in the AFC title game sandwiched in between. And that last win, on Monday Night Football on October 8, 1990, is still to this day the most recent Browns victory over Denver.

What followed was a string of 11-straight losses at the hands of the Broncos. Given the Browns’ relative ineptitude over the past couple decades, most of the contests have been double-digit losses. The closest Cleveland has come to beating Denver since 1990 came in 2003 and 2015, both of which were three-point losses. That 2015 game is the most recent time the two teams have met, when Mike Pettine and the Browns took the eventual Super Bowl Champions to overtime, only to lose on a game-winning field goal.

And that brings us to the current day. On Saturday, the Broncos and Browns will play for the 29th time ever. Cleveland, who started off the series so well in the early 1970s by taking three of the first four, has an all-time record of 5-23 against Denver. In order to change that to 6-23, Gregg Williams will have to lead the 5-7-1 Browns into Mile High Stadium and find a way to defeat the 6-7 Broncos in one of the hardest NFL stadiums in which to play.

Vegas also lists Denver as 2.5-point favorites for the game. To beat the odds and overcome the home field advantage on the Broncos’ side, the Browns will have to rally behind rookie phenom Baker Mayfield, quite possibly the best quarterback to put on a Cleveland uniform since Bernie Kosar went to battle against Denver in the late eighties. Hopefully, the fact that the game is being played on a Saturday night in primetime will bring out some of the poise in Mayfield that nabbed him the Heisman Trophy last year for Oklahoma.

Given the format of NFL scheduling presently in place, the Browns and Broncos may only play three or four more times in the next decade. For the first time since the two teams started playing though, it feels as if the Browns are the team with the most potential. If John Dorsey can continue to help Mayfield by putting quality pieces around him for him to work with and if Mayfield continues on his current path of Browns franchise quarterback of the future, the Browns can own this series once again.

The Broncos have a great, young running back in Philip Lindsay, who will likely top 1000 yards rushing in the game against the Browns Saturday night. Linebacker Todd Davis is also in his mid-twenties and leading the team in tackles with 100. But in the modern NFL, a team is only as good as its quarterback and Case Keenum lacks the potential Mayfield possesses.

On top of that, Keenum is in his thirties already and by the time these two teams face again, his skills will probably be in decline. The same goes for Emmanuel Sanders, who’s a solid piece at wide receiver right now, but is also 31 and not getting any younger.

So there you go, as complete an overview of the Browns vs. Broncos series as you’re likely to find. In the past, the Broncos have always had Cleveland’s number, ripping out their hearts at the worst moments. But moving forward, that can definitely change.

The future is now! 

Behind Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett and a loyal fanbase as passionate about this team as it was with any during the 1980s, this group of Browns players just might be able to pull off what Bernie Kosar’s Browns never could and gloriously finish what they started.

Images: CBS, FOX 

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