Winning Time: Ranking the Broncos' Best AFC Championship Games

January 2014

Sunday will mark the Broncos’ ninth appearance in the AFC championship game. Landing in the NFL’s version of the Final Four isn’t the flashiest of accomplishments; only fans with addictive devotion to pro football could even tell you who the combatants were from year to year.

The losers of these games are usually quickly forgotten unless the defeat was particularly crushing, but those nail-biters often become part of NFL lore. (The Ice Bowl, The Catch, and of course, The Drive all happened in conference championship games.)

Merely getting this far is quite an accomplishment. The Broncos have appeared in fewer conference championship tilts than all-time great organizations such as Dallas, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, but in more than such longtime franchises as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

What’s more, at 6-2, the Broncos have historically performed well when the Super Bowl is on the line. But we should savor this one, because you never know when your team will be back there again—six of the eight Broncos AFC championship games happened on John Elway’s watch, and only one of them was played in the 15 years since number 7 called it a career.

Obviously, we’re all hoping for another win this Sunday, but this week’s lead-up to what should be an epic game will be almost as entertaining. From the weather watch to Josh McDaniels’ return to Denver to…oh yeah…the 15th round of Manning versus Brady—the most fitting of numbers for these two all-time heavyweight champs—whatever happens Sunday should be a treat.

Ranking the Broncos’ championship game appearances:

  1. 1/11/87: Broncos 23 – Cleveland 20 — The Drive lifts Elway to his first Super Bowl and still is one of the most stirring chapters in his (or anyone’s) legacy.
  2. 1/1/78: Broncos 20 – Oakland 17 — The Orange Crush defense takes the franchise to its first Super Bowl and begins its multi-decade stretch as one of the winningest organizations in the league.
  3. 1/11/98: Broncos 24 – Pittsburgh 21 — This one wasn’t as close or exciting as the score makes it seem, but it preceded the team’s, and Elway’s, long-awaited first title.
  4. 1/17/88: Broncos 38 – Cleveland 33 — Another classic with the Browns sends the Broncos on after Earnest Byner fumbles just yards shy of a go-ahead touchdown in the waning moments.
  5. 1/17/99: Broncos 23 – N.Y. Jets 10 — The defending champs dismantle New York on their way to a second straight ring.
  6. 1/14/90: Broncos 37 – Cleveland 21 — An easy win over the Browns doesn’t make the subsequent Super Bowl drubbing (55-10 to the 49ers) any easier to swallow.
  7. 1/12/92: Buffalo 10 – Broncos 7 — No shame in losing to one of the elite franchises of the 90s.
  8. 1/22/06: Pittsburgh 34 – Broncos 17 — Denver’s only post-Elway appearance in the AFC title game—until now.

—Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Follow 5280 articles editor Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad