On This Date in Sports January 17, 1988: The Fumble

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Denver Broncos beat the Cleveland Browns in Mile High Stadium in the AFC Championship Game 38-33. It is the second straight year; the Broncos beat the Browns to reach the Super Bowl. A year after rallying with “The Drive,” the Broncos hold off a Browns' comeback thanks to “The Fumble.” Trailing 38-31 with just over a minute left, Cleveland’s hopes are dashed when Ernest Byner fumbled at the two-yard line trying to get in the end zone.

Both the Denver Broncos, coached by Dan Reeves, and the Cleveland Browns, coached by Marty Schottenheimer, entered the 1987 season with unfinished business. The Broncos were coming off a 39-21 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXI. The Browns, meanwhile, were seeking revenge against Denver for their heartbreaking 23-20 overtime loss in the 1986 AFC Championship Game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium. The Broncos tied the game on a 98-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, winning on a field goal by Rich Karlis.

The Cleveland Browns were the top team in the AFC Central, winning their division for the third straight season with a record of 10-5. Led by quarterback Bernie Kosar and the running of Ernest Byner, the Browns had created an intimidating home-field edge with a group of fans called the Dawg Pound, that often tossed dog biscuits at the Browns' opponents. The Browns pulled away late in the Division Round to beat the Indianapolis Colts 38-21.

The Denver Broncos appeared to have a Super Bowl hangover as they struggled early in the season. After the regular players returned from the strike, they again became the top team in the AFC, winning their division for the second straight season with a record of 10-4-1 as John Elway was named NFL MVP. In the Division Playoffs, the Broncos enjoying home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, had no problem beating the Houston Oilers 34-10.

The AFC Championship Game at Mile High Stadium was the first time the Broncos and Browns played since “The Drive.” The two teams were scheduled to meet in a Monday Night Game in Week 3. However, that week was canceled when the NFL Players went on strike. The Broncos dominated the game early, jumping to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Bernie Kosar was picked off by Freddie Gilbert, setting up Denver’s first score as John Elway completed an eight-yard pass to Ricky Nattiel. On the Browns' next drive, Kevin Mack again set the Broncos up in Cleveland territory, as Steve Sewell scored on a one-yard run, completing a quick 45-yard scoring drive. 

The Browns got on the board with a 29-yard field goal by Matt Bahr in the second quarter, but Denver remained in control with an 80-yard scoring drive, capped by a one-yard Gene Lang. From there, each team missed a field goal as the game went into halftime, with the Broncos holding a 21-3 lead. The second half started great for the Browns, as Felix Wright intercepted John Elway to set the Browns up for the first touchdown as Bernie Kosar connected with Reggie Langhorne on an 18-yard touchdown pass. However, the Broncos quickly answered as Mark Jackson took a short pass from Elway and went 80 yards to put Denver up 28-10. The Browns shook off Jackson’s electrifying catch and run and scored again as Earnest Byner caught a 32-yard touchdown pass from Kosar. Ken Bell muffed the ensuing kickoff trapping the Broncos against their own goal line. The Broncos would go three and out, leading to a short punt that gave Cleveland the ball at the Denver 42-yard line. The Browns quickly took advantage, making it 28-24 on a four-yard run by Byner. The Broncos would end the third quarter with a 38-yard field goal by Rich Karlis to extend the lead to seven points. 

In the fourth quarter, the Browns completed the comeback with an 87-yard drive to tie the game 31-31, with Webster Slaughter catching a four-yard score from Kosar. The Broncos would retake the lead as John Elway connected with Sammy Winder on a 20-yard touchdown. Looking to answer, the Browns drove down the field and had the ball first and goal and the eight-yard line with 1:12 left. Seeking to tie the game, Byner lunged toward the end zone when he was stripped by Jeremiah Castille, ending the Browns' hopes. With time running out, the Broncos took an intentional safety to make the final score 38-33 as they went on to Super Bowl XXII. Though he is remembered for the fumble, Earnest Byner had a terrific game rushing for 67 yards while making 120 yards on seven receptions with two touchdowns.

The Broncos would lose the big game for the second straight season as they were beaten by the Washington Redskins 45-10, allowing 35 unanswered points in the second quarter.