January 11, 1987. Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Bernie Kosar throws a touchdown pass to Brian Brennan. The kick-off is muffed by Denver, pinning them on the two yard line.
My phone rings. It is my father, who was watching the game from work.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl!” he said.
He didn’t just mean the Browns. He meant the two of us. We were going to go. Price wouldn’t be an object. Nothing would have kept us out of the Rose Bowl to see the Browns in the Super Bowl. Nothing except John Elway.
Little by little, yard by yard Elway tore my heart out of my chest. I was fourteen years old, and I hated John Elway and the Broncos for taking away my Super Bowl trip. The following year’s AFC Championship game cemented it.
For years and years the Broncos were second only to the Steelers in terms of NFL teams I despised. Then after the team moved, they took a backseat only to Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Elway himself slipped just behind Art Modell.
Watching the conference championship games unfold on Sunday, I was surprised by my reaction to it all. I want the Broncos to win the Super Bowl.
Peyton Manning is the reason of course, not Elway. I really respect Peyton. It seems like no player in the NFL works harder or smarter. He doesn’t just win the chess match, physically he makes the throws as well. It’s one thing to know where the ball should go on every single play, it is another to get the ball there. Peyton gets the ball there. He also has fought back from a major injury and is playing even better than before. He’s also easy to root for. He gives his teammates credit. He seems genuinely humbled and appreciative when people recognize his achievements.
Even seeing John Elway on the podium holding up the Hunt trophy didn’t dissuade me. CBS had put up a graphic earlier in the game of the great QB battles in AFC championship game history. Manning and Brady have now squared off three times with a Super Bowl berth on the line. Manning has won two of the three contests. Elway and Kosar also met three times in the AFC title game. We know the results of those.
But here’s the reason I can watch the Super Bowl and root for Manning and the Broncos. Here’s why I can see that graphic and hardly flinch anymore.
With every 5-11 or 4-12 season, the chasm between the Browns of my youth and the team that plays football near the lake these days gets wider and wider. They are not the same team. They are not the same franchise.
That AFC title game yesterday was a quarterback clinic. Manning was nearly perfect. Tom Brady made a few mistakes, and that likely cost the Patriots the game and another shot at a Super Bowl.
The quarterback play from the Browns? Not even on the same planet as those two. Ever since Mike Polk said it in his infamous Factory of Sadness video the phrase has rung true. It’s like the good teams in the league are playing a different sport than the Browns.
So I will be cheering for the Broncos and Peyton Manning. I am certainly not telling anyone else who to root for. Had Phil Dawson and the 49ers made it, this would be a different piece.