Five Near Misses for a Cleveland Browns Super Bowl
No. IV: The Denver Curse, January 14, 1990
If there’s one team that practices voodoo on the Browns, it is the Denver Broncos and John Elway. Elway was the single most formidable player against the Browns in this reporter’s lifetime, and the Broncos were the greatest rival, based on three titanic encounters for the AFC title game and a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Denver rivalry was not as bitter as the division rivalries, especially Pittsburgh and Baltimore, but in terms of team history, Denver was by far the most significant adversary.
The 1989 season was the first for Bud Carson, who had been the architect for Pittsburgh Steeler defenses in the 1970s. However, this was a shotgun marriage between Carson and Marc Trestman, arranged by your favorite owner, Arthur B. Modell after he fired Marty Schottenheimer the previous season for not being able to win a playoff game with the fourth-string quarterback (no kidding, semi-retired quarterback Don Strock was signed off the street at the end of the year).
Many fans were furious with Modell for firing Marty Schottenheimer but were soon pacified by an opening day 51-0 slaughter of the Steelers (this reporter, however, stayed mad. Still a big Marty fan). Carson was further anointed for sainthood — at least on an interim basis — after finally beating Elway and the Broncos,16-13 thanks to the Dawg Pound. They were so rowdy that the referees had to order the teams to switch ends of the field, which gave Matt Bahr a wind advantage, aiding a wobbly 48 yard, game-winning field goal.
But as the season went on, the Browns faded. In the first nine games, the Browns averaged 26 points and rang up totals of 42, 38, 28 and 27 points. After their ninth game, however, the Browns averaged only 14.4 points per game.
Nevertheless, in the wild card round the team outlasted Buffalo, a young team getting ready to lose four Super Bowls starting the next year, and the Browns found themselves in the AFC title game against Denver for the third time in four years.
The Broncos scored first on a field goal by David Treadwell after safety Dennis Smith intercepted Kosar. On the next Denver position, Browns cornerback Frank Minniefeld stumbled and Mike Young took the pass from Elway and went 70 yards for the touchdown.
It didn’t look good at that point, but the Browns put a drive together and Bernie Kosar connected with a 27-yard strike to Brian Brennan to pull within three. Maybe there was a glimmer of hope?
Elway and the Broncos answered with a touchdown after some good runs by running back Sammy Winder and another long completion to Young, followed by a short TD pass to tight end Orson Mobley.
This was soon followed by a 7-yard touchdown run by Winder and it was 24-7 and the Browns looked like they were done. But the Browns like to tantalize their fans. Kosar took to the air for another touchdown drive capped by the second touchdown pass to Brian Brennan.
Opportunity was knocking as defensive back Felix Wright recovered a Denver fumble and took it to the one-yard line. Tim Manoa took it in for a touchdown and suddenly it was 24-21.
However, Denver and Elway went back to work, hooking up with WInder for a 39-yard touchdown completion. The Denver defense held the Browns in check at that point, allowing the Broncos to grind out two more field goals, and a 37-21 victory. It was a close game from the standpoint of pulling within three points in the third quarter, but the fact of the matter was that Elway was unstoppable, throwing for 385 yards on 20 for 36.
The Broncos, for all their trouble, merely earned the right to be humiliated by the San Francisco 49ers, 55-10. It did not really feel as though any AFC team, including the Browns, were very close to winning it all. Actually, the AFC Championship game of two years earlier was much closer. It felt like the Browns were going to win, until The Fumble.