By Mark Schiff
Super Bowl 50 will mark Denver’s eighth time playing in the Big Game, tying them with the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys for the most Super Bowl appearances. But with a dismal 2-5 record in the championship, Broncos fans may have tried to block out the memories of most of those games.
Denver didn’t just lose those five Super Bowls; they were humiliated, losing by an average score of 41-12. There’s no shame in losing the championship, of course, as the cruel math of sports means that only one team can be crowned the winner. But Denver’s lopsided losses were the types of public embarrassments that cloud out the silver-lining of playing in the final NFL game of the year.
Yet those painful losses would also serve to make Denver’s two victories feel even more triumphant, and establish a powerful narrative about perseverance for one of the game’s greatest players. Here’s a look back at all of Denver’s Super Bowl games, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Super Bowl XII – Jan. 15, 1978 – Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
Dallas Cowboys – 27
Denver Broncos – 10
MVP: Randy White, DT and Harvey Martin, DE
Fun Fact: Only Super Bowl to feature co-MVPs
How Bad Was It?: It sure wasn’t pretty.
Super Bowl XII set records for penalties and turnovers, as Denver coughed up the ball eight times, including six turnovers in the first half alone. The thing is, it could have been he other way around, as Dallas fumbled three times in the opening five minutes and Denver didn’t recover a single one of them.
Still, the game wasn’t a total catastrophe, as Denver was able to pull to within 10 twice in the second half. However, the relentless pass rush of Dallas’ “Doomsday Defense” was just too dominant, as they chased Broncos QB Craig Morton from the game in the third quarter. Younger, more mobile quarterback Norris Weese didn’t fare much better and when it was all said and done, two members of the Dallas defensive line were named co-MVP.
Super Bowl XXI – Jan. 25, 1987 – Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena
New York Giants – 39
Denver Broncos – 20
MVP: Phil Simms, QB
Fun Fact: The Giants are credited as popularizing the “Gatorade Shower” in this game.
How Bad Was It?: Not as bad as you remember.
The Broncos actually led 10-9 at halftime but a series of first half mistakes robbed their upset bid of momentum. With the chance to take a 10 point lead over the heavily favored Giants early in the second quarter, Denver squandered first-and-goal from the 1 and kicker Rich Karlis missed the shortest field goal in Super Bowl history. Elway later took a safety to cut Denver’s lead to 10-9 and Karlis again missed a short field goal near the end of the half.
When the Giants executed a fake punt early in the third quarter, it triggered a run of 17 unanswered points in the second half as Phil Simms picked the defense apart with a Super Bowl-record 10-straight completions. John Elway played brilliantly in his Super Bowl debut as he passed for 320 yards and lead the team in rushing, but Denver’s offense was just too one-dimensional to overcome the Giants.
Super Bowl XXII – Jan. 31, 1988 – Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego
Washington Redskins – 42
Denver Broncos – 10
MVP: Doug Williams, QB
Fun Fact: Williams was the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.
How Bad Was It?: Like getting jumped out of nowhere.
At the end of the first quarter, everything was going beautifully for the Broncos. Aided by Elway’s 56-yard bomb to rookie receiver Ricky Nattiel on Denver’s first offensive possession, Denver raced out to a 10-0 lead and nearly had more after seemingly recovering not one but two fumbles. But there would be no more joy for Broncos fans after the first quarter.
After Williams returned from what initially looked like a serious knee injury, the Redskins had one of the greatest quarters in NFL history as a series of big plays burned the Broncos defense for 35 points in the second quarter, including a record-setting four touchdowns by Williams. It was a stunning, sudden and total collapse that goes down as the most infamous 15-minutes in Broncos history.
Super Bowl XXIV – Jan. 28, 1990 – Louisiana Superdome, New Orleans
San Francisco – 55
Denver Broncos – 10
MVP: Joe Montana, QB
Fun Fact: Nothing. There was nothing fun about this game.
How Bad Was It?: This is that thing we don’t talk about.
No, seriously, there’s not much to say. The most lopsided game in Super Bowl history, San Francisco scored two touchdowns in each quarter while dominating the time of possession and holding the Broncos to a total of 167 yards. Really, the only thing the 49ers did wrong was miss an extra point.
Super Bowl XXXII – Jan. 25, 1998 – Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego
Denver Broncos – 31
Green Bay Packers – 24
MVP: Terrell Davis, RB
Fun Fact: Qualcomm became the first stadium to host a Super Bowl and World Series in the same year
How Bad Was It?: It wasn’t bad at all. It was perfect.
It’s impossible to overstate how much John Elway’s win in Super Bowl XXII changed the narrative of his career. Thanks to his three embarrassing Super Bowl losses, Elway had become a cruel joke, the guy who would get you to the promised land only to let you down. Of course, Elway is hardly to blame for the 136 points put up on Denver in those games, but it didn’t matter; in America’s annual pageant of athletic triumph, Elway had always blown it spectacularly.
By winning a Super Bowl (and even one would have been enough), all of that was no more. A championship earns you membership into a fraternity of people who never have to apologize, whose resume sparkles in the jewels on their finger. Get a ring and the vague yet persistent stormcloud known as “They” can’t say anything.
As for the game itself, Super Bowl XXXII was one of the most competitive and exciting Super Bowls ever played. 11-point underdogs, few in the sports media thought the Broncos would be able to overcome Green Bay’s size and experience but buoyed by the brilliant play of running back Terrell Davis, Denver’s defense was able to come up with a last minute stop and pull out a win that ended a 13-year run of dominance for the NFC.
Super Bowl XXXIII – Jan. 31, 1999 – Pro Player Stadium, Miami
Denver Broncos – 34
Atlanta Falcons – 19
MVP: John Elway, QB
Fun Fact: Denver’s win came over Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, who was Elway’s coach in his first three Super Bowl games.
How Bad Was It?: It was pretty bad for the Falcons.
Denver’s second consecutive Super Bowl win was much easier than the first, as the overmatched Atlanta Falcons fell behind 17 points in the second quarter and were never able to recover. After Atlanta staked an early 3-0 lead, the Broncos put together their first touchdown drive before John Elway hit receiver Rod Smith for an 80-yard TD to trigger the route.
There’s a case to be made that Smith deserved to be named MVP over Elway, as the undrafted fan favorite finished with 152 yards and a TD. But as many suspected ahead of the game, this was Elway’s final ride and the 38-year-old Hall of Famer went out on top, earning MVP honors for his 336 yard performance.
Super Bowl XLVIII – Feb. 2, 2014 – Metlife Stadium, East Rutherford
MVP: Malcolm Smith, LB
Fun Fact: Although it was billed as the first outdoor Super Bowl in a cold-weather city, the temperatures were surprisingly mild on game day.
How Bad Was It?: It was absolutely brutal.
Denver’s most recent Super Bowl embarrassment dredged up the ghosts of their early Super Bowl losses, as the Manny Ramirez’s botched snap on the game’s opening possession would come to personify a game in which Denver was completely outplayed. Lead by one of the best defenses of all-time, the physical Seahawks were able to capitalize on Denver’s mistakes and race out to a 22-0 lead at halftime. Any hopes that Denver’s record-breaking offense would be able to stage a second-half comeback were dashed when Percy Harvin returned the opening kickoff 87-yards for a touchdown. Arguably the most humiliating of Denver’s Super Bowl losses, Super Bowl XLVIII at least had one positive byproduct: The Broncos retooled the team as a defensive force, a decision that would get them back in the big game just two years later.
We’ll see if Denver’s newly dominant defense can deliver a storybook finish to Peyton Manning’s career when Super Bowl 50 against the Carolina Panthers kicks off at 4:30 on Feb. 7, right here on CBS4 Denver.
Mark Schiff is a freelance writer and music journalist for AXS.com. In 2013, his coverage of the Seattle Seahawks ended in heartbreak when they defeated the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl. Now covering his beloved hometown team, his knowledge and passion for pro football has resulted in multiple fantasy football championships. Find him on Twitter at @mihilites.