'That was probably the toughest loss I've ever had to face. All the Super Bowl losses, this was the one that stuck with me, just because of the error I made in overtime, not making sure the man understood me. Nobody makes a first down and we end up losing the ball game.'
--DAN REEVES, Bronco Head Coach
Somewhere, over the Rockies, life stirs again among the Broncomaniacs, even if it did feel for most of the long, cold winter that the last Raider visit might have stamped it out forever.
But it's a new season. In Denver they're warming up for two of their favorite days rolled up into one: the opener and the annual Raider invasion, arriving simultaneously next Sunday.
In Denver, they live for a rematch. Two overtime losses to the Raiders a year ago and their 11-win season went down the drain. Even if they're not eager to repeat it where Raiders might read it, the Broncos seem to feel that they were the better team; they just lost the two games to the Raiders--"a team most of them consider to be inferior," wrote The Sporting News' Denver correspondent, Joseph Sanchez.
Why shouldn't the Broncos have taken it hard?
Hadn't they been 13-3 and AFC West champions the year before? Didn't they lead the division last season, right up until Dec. 8, the day that will live in Bronco infamy, Barney Day, when their venerable old defensive end blew the overtime coin toss?
Didn't they wind up with the distinction of becoming the fourth NFL team to win 11 games and miss the playoffs?
Has Coach Dan Reeves slept since?
"That was probably the toughest loss I've ever had to face," Reeves said a couple of days ago from Denver. "All the Super Bowl losses, this was the one that stuck with me, just because of the error I made in overtime, not making sure the man understood me.
"Nobody makes a first down and we end up losing the ball game."
The man was Barney Chavous, normally one of five captains sent out for coin tosses. That day, he was breaking the Bronco consecutive-game record and he was being honored by being sent out alone. He won the toss but elected to receive, sentencing his offense to drive into the face of a blizzard until Greg Townsend and Howie Long sacked John Elway who fumbled the ball away at his eight. Chris Bahr kicked a field goal on the next play.
"The thing that's so hard," Reeves says, "(is that) the officials immediately want your captains.
"It was snowing, the wind was blowing and we'd had a very poor second half, offensively. I grabbed Barney and went over to talk to Joe (Collier, Bronco defensive coordinator). I said, 'Maybe we ought to kick off.'
"Joe said, 'We gave them the ball in Los Angeles (in the overtime two weeks before) and they drove down and kicked a field goal.'
"I said, 'Yeah, but the weather wasn't like this. I think we ought to kick off.'
"I told Barney, 'If we win we'll defend the south goal.' Before the game, we normally say, we'll take the ball or we'll defend the south goal. He just assumed it was the same thing or he wasn't paying attention.
"As soon as he did it, I knew he'd made a mistake but the officials wouldn't let us change it. It's not Barney's fault, it was mine. It was my responsibility. Now we make our players repeat it back. That was the reason I couldn't sleep that night, thinking of what I could have done."
A week later, John Elway threw five interceptions and the Broncos had to come from behind in the fourth quarter--at home--to beat the lowly Kansas City Chiefs.
A week after that, the Broncos fell behind, 17-0, at Seattle, before rallying to win once more.
Since none of the top playoff contenders--the Raiders, New York Jets or New England Patriots--had lost, the Broncos were out, anyway.
The forecast in Denver that winter had just become like Clubber Lang's for Rocky Balboa:
Over the last two seasons, or in other words since Elway got over being a raw rookie, these teams have played four games and split them. Three went overtime. The combined score is 80-80.
The Raiders, as befits their tradition and general demeanor, approach it with a certain swagger.
The Broncos tend toward love/hate or perhaps hate/love. Thus linebacker Tom Jackson, who has been called the team's great Raider hater, remains one of Marcus Allen's greatest boosters. After the game in Denver last season, in which Allen had torn 135 yards out of a Bronco defense geared to stop him, Jackson came into the Raider dressing room to congratulate him.
"I don't particularly dislike any Raider," Jackson says. "I just feel you have to be of a certain frame of mind when you play them.
"You have to have a lot of intensity. You can't allow some of the things I've seen happen on the field throw your game off. They know what they are better than I do.
"I think I went through a period when I disliked a lot of things about the way the Raiders play football. But they've been successful at what they do.