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Broncos Ranked Among Top 'Heartbreak Dynasties' of All-Time

A fascinating look at the franchise.
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The Denver Broncos have been to eight Super Bowls and won three. Most recently, in the four years (2012-2015) in which Peyton Manning was the quarterback, the Broncos had two Super Bowl appearances, with one victory.

Prior to that, there were the back-to-back Super Bowl captures to conclude the 1997 and 1998 seasons, an offense fueled by running back Terrell Davis and quarterback John Elway, who ended his Hall-of-Fame playing career on a high note.

However, prior to those two seasons, the Broncos went through many struggles. There were multiple seasons where they made a run at a championship but came up empty, particularly in four lopsided Super Bowl defeats.

Football Outsiders ranked the Broncos from 1973 to 1996 as one of the top five heartbreak dynasties of all time. The Broncos ranked fifth overall on a list of 44 runs in which a team had a good shot at a championship but ultimately fell short.

For an explanation of Football Outsiders' methodology, you may refer to the start of the series. Now, let's get to the Broncos in the time frame Football Outsiders examined.

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Bryan Knowles starts his examination of the Broncos ranking fifth with the joke featured in a 1996 Simpsons episode, when the Broncos carried the stigma of a team that, despite some success, would disappoint when it came to winning a championship.

The Broncos era from 1973 to 1996 was the only entry on the list to last longer than 20 years and included five different head coaches, four different starting quarterbacks to open a season, and multiple players who are in the Broncos' Ring of Fame, plus several who are arguably worthy of the Hall of Fame but sitting out largely because voters at the time were fixated on Super Bowl rings.

It started under John Ralston, whose team tried but failed to win the AFC West in 1973. Ralston was the head coach who drafted the bulk of the talent that comprised the vaunted Orange Crush defense.

Red Miller took over as head coach in 1976 and the Broncos not only ended their playoff drought but made it to the Super Bowl. However, the Broncos were blown out by the Dallas Cowboys, 27-10, in Super Bowl XII, with the Broncos offense turning the ball over eight times.

That the Cowboys only scored 17 points off those turnovers is a testament to Denver's defense. However, the Broncos' offense was terrible, largely because quarterback Craig Morton had been playing through a hip injury.

Dan Reeves took over as head coach in 1981 and the Broncos went through two seasons featuring quality defense, though still didn't have their quarterback, with Steve DeBerg failing to prove he was The Guy.

Things changed when the Broncos agreed to a trade for Elway, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 1983. While Elway struggled as a rookie, he settled down and became the franchise QB the Broncos had been searching for since the franchise was founded.

The Broncos would become spoilers for another team that made the heartbreak dynasty list, that being the Cleveland Browns of the 1980s. The Broncos and Browns faced each other in the AFC title game in three seasons (1986, 1987, 1989), with the Broncos handing the Browns a loss each time.

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Two of those losses came down to the final play; the Broncos' 1986 win was punctuated by The Drive, the moment which cemented Elway's status as the master of the fourth-quarter comeback. In 1987, it was The Fumble, in which the Browns' Earnest Byner had a chance for the game-tying touchdown but lost the ball after Broncos cornerback Jeremiah Castille stripped it away, then recovered it.

Unfortunately for the Broncos, they met with disappointment in the Super Bowl in those three seasons they beat the Browns in the AFC title game. They fell to the Giants in Super Bowl XXI, a game in which the Broncos led 10-9 at halftime but gave up 17 unanswered points in the third quarter and never recovered.

Then came Super Bowl XXII, where the Broncos took a 10-0 lead against Washington and might have been in position to score more points after Greg Kragen recovered what he thought was a Doug Williams fumble. However, the referees ruled that Williams' knee touched the ground before he lost the ball. Washington proceeded to score 42 unanswered points.

Two years later, it was Super Bowl XXIV. The Broncos faced a tough San Francisco 49ers squad and were never in the game, suffering a 55-10 loss.

It was those three Super Bowl losses that may have birthed the punch line of the Broncos being associated with futility. Throw in the Broncos losing the 1991 AFC title game, then having a strong 1996 season that ended with a divisional round exit against the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the heartbreak only got worse.

The two Super Bowl wins that followed ended that impression, providing much relief to longtime fans who wondered if their favorite team would ever win the big game. Interestingly, of the teams who made the top five, the Broncos were the first to snap the run of seasons without a Super Bowl win.

The Rams' 1966-1980 run ranked second and, while they had won two NFL championships prior to the NFL-AFL merger, they had no Super Bowl titles until the 1999 season, one year after the Broncos' second Super Bowl win.

Then there's the Philadelphia Eagles, whose 2000-2014 run ranked third. The Eagles took longer to finally win a Super Bowl, which came in 2017 after they won a high-scoring matchup against the New England Patriots.

Two other teams, though, are still waiting for that first Super Bowl win. The Buffalo Bills' 1988 to 1999 run ranked fourth — a ranking that might surprise given their notoriety of four straight Super Bowl appearances from 1990 to 1993, all of which ended in defeat.

And the team that ranked No. 1 is probably the one that should have been associated with championship futility more than the Broncos. That would be the Minnesota Vikings from 1969 to 1982, who made four Super Bowl appearances over that span, losing each one.

The Vikings did have an NFL championship, but there's a catch: it was 1970, the last of the pre-merger seasons in which the NFL and AFL were still considered separate leagues.

Furthermore, both the Bills and the Vikings have never appeared in the Super Bowl since they lost their last appearances. For the Bills, that means no such appearances since 1993, and for the Vikings, that's no appearances since 1976.

As frustrating as those earlier years were for the Broncos, and as frustrating as it's been to not make the playoffs in recent seasons, remember to take comfort in knowing the Broncos did shake that schneid in 1997.

You can also find solace in knowing the Broncos' last Super Bowl appearance was only six seasons ago, whereas Vikings fans have been waiting more than four decades to get back to the grandest football stage.