The Denver Broncos were 9 1/2-point underdogs in Super Bowl XXI despite the presence of a quarterback with blond hair, blue eyes, an unmatched right arm that can deliver a football 60 yards on the run, and a radiance like sunlight on a snowy peak.
After four seasons of almost, but not quite, delivering on his exquisite promise, John Elway had suddenly become everything the Broncos and the pro football world at large had been expecting, directing a now legendary 98-yard drive in the last five minutes of regulation play that helped his team defeat the Cleveland Browns two weeks ago in the AFC championship game.
Against that backdrop, Elway entered Sunday's game against the New York Giants bearing the weight of an entire offense on his shoulders.
No less an authority than linebacker Lawrence Taylor of the Giants defined Elway's importance. "Anytime he goes back to pass, it is a double threat because he can run or pass," Taylor said. "I think their best offense is any time John has the ball in his hands."
It was too much, of course. It was too much for Elway--or any quarterback--to have to defeat one of the best defensive units in history on his own.
All week, Elway protested that he was not a one-man team. The Giants proved him right in crushing the Broncos, 39-20.
This time, there was no miracle drive for Elway. There was only the hope of getting another chance--preferably against a defense with a little more respect for a young legend.
"I wouldn't trade the experience of being in the Super Bowl for anything in the world," Elway said. "It's a great disappointment to lose, because we had dreamed of being world champions."
He made no excuses and offered no apologies.
"I felt I did everything I could," Elway said. "I gave it 110%, and that's all anyone could ask. We'll be back, sometime in the future."
Elway's arm brought the Broncos to a critical juncture early in the second quarter. A 54-yard pass to Vance Johnson, a 6-yarder to Orson Mobley and a 7-yard throw to Steve Sewell--all third down plays--put Denver at the Giants' one-yard line.
But, instead of scoring, they went backward on three running plays, then wound up getting nothing as Rich Karlis missed a 23-yard field goal attempt.
"It really hurt when we didn't get it in the end zone then," he said. "If you're looking for a turning point, that was it."
At the time, the Broncos had a 10-7 lead and a chance to make it 17-7.
Instead, Elway was thrown for a one-yard loss, Gerald Willhite was stopped for no gain and Sammy Winder was thrown for a four-yard loss, bringing Karlis onto the field.
"They were in a goal-line defense," Elway said. "It's tough to throw down there. Nobody had run on them all year, but we knew we couldn't totally disregard the run. We just didn't get it in."
One reason they didn't was Taylor, who stepped into the middle of Elway's option play on first down.
"I saw Sammy down in the corner of the end zone, but I decided to run," Elway said. "I tried to cut inside Lawrence, but he has such great speed, we couldn't get (a blocker) to him. . . . We had a golden opportunity but didn't score. The field really shrinks against their zone near the goal."
The New York defense got to Elway for a safety late in the first half.
Backed up at their 13-yard line, the Broncos were forced to try to throw on third down, but George Martin sacked Elway in the end zone, making it 10-9.
"I had no way to get rid of it," Elway said. "There was nowhere to go inside or outside, nowhere to dump it. They got a good push up the middle, and I just had to eat it."
Center Billy Bryan offered a slightly different view of the play.
"I was blocking on the left side, but I think John was trying to back out to the right and he got outside the pocket and into the rush," Bryan said.
Despite their second-quarter problems, the Broncos were in a positive frame of mind at halftime, Elway said.
"There was a good feeling. We were moving the ball real well between the 20s, just like the first time we played the Giants."
The failings of the second quarter were accented by the total disappearance of the Denver offense in the third quarter.
After completing 13 of 20 passes for 187 yards in the first half, Elway was nearly shut out by the New York defense in the third quarter. The Giants outgained the Broncos, 163-2, in the quarter, when they pushed their lead to 26-10.
The Giants' offensive dominance made it simpler for their defense--and infinitely harder for the Broncos and Elway.
"They just took total control in the second half," Elway said. "They got more conservative on defense. After mixing it up with their defenses in the first half, they played mostly zone in the second half. We tried to stay with what had worked . . . "
He didn't finish the thought, but he didn't have to. The Giants had done that with utter finality.
In the end, there was nothing for Elway to do but offer his congratulations to his counterpart, Phil Simms of the Giants.
"This has to be a dream come true for Phil," Elway said. "He had a great day. They are a great team."
With that, a platoon of burly guards in golden parkas led him away from the microphones and notebooks--and all the painful questions.