Tonight's frigid face-off between the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals is one of those make-or-break contests that will help determine if the team Gary Kubiak assembled has staying power or is another exercise in frustration. Depending largely on what happens tonight, the Broncos could wind up division champs or out of the playoffs entirely. In theory, even the number-one seed, and the inside track to the Super Bowl, is on the line — a theory that only holds weight if you believe the Miami Dolphins can somehow ambush the reeling New England Patriots.
Today's Denver Post informs us that the Broncos have "reacquired their swagger" and expect to win. Better if they'd reacquired a running game, or if Vernon Davis and Demaryius Thomas had reacquired their grip on the football, or if John Elway had reacquired Julius Thomas and an offensive line.
Both teams come into the game with inexperienced backup QBs and a lot of question marks. But, hey, no pressure. Denver has home field, the altitude and what promises to be a very cold evening. Put aside all the malarkey you've heard about the Broncos not doing well in bad weather; Peyton Manning isn't playing, and the team has actually had some glorious moments in miserable, bone-chilling weather. If you want to make those miracles happen, stay frosty.
Here are five particularly memorable bits of arctic conquest the team has managed over the years:
1. The Snow Bowl (October 15, 1984)
A blizzard dumped fifteen inches of snow on Mile High Stadium, leaving yard markers obscured and the Monday Night Football team marveling. And in just 36 seconds of play, the Broncos carved out a two-touchdown lead off two fumbles by the Green Bay Packers. A Rich Karlis field goal made it 17-0 at halftime. Denver failed to put anything on the board in the second half (Elway can relate, Brock) but managed to hold off the fumble-prone cheeseheads and come out with a 17-14 victory.
2. The Snowball (November 11, 1985)
Trailing 14-3 in the waning seconds of the first half, the San Francisco 49ers lined up for a piece-of-cake, 27-yard field goal. But a snowball from the stands startled holder Matt Cavanaugh, who bobbled the snap. No penalty was assessed to the unsportsmanlike mystery fan. The missed three-pointer turned out to be a big deal, as the Broncos staggered to a 17-16 victory.
3. The Slippery Snap (December 24, 2006)
In a snowy contest between playoff hopefuls reminiscent of tonight's game, the Cincinnati Bengals brought an early Christmas present to Denver. The Broncos capitalized on four turnovers, including an interception and a fumble recovery by the inimitable Champ Bailey. Jay Cutler became the first NFL quarterback to throw for multiple touchdowns in each of his first four games. But the big play came at the very end, when a Bengals extra-point snap sailed wide of the holder. Denver 24, Cincinnati 23.
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4. Icy Hot Tebow (January 9, 2012)
Denver's offense sputtered badly in the Tim Tebow era. But it was full of surprises in this memorable playoff match with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game went to overtime, but only long enough (eleven seconds) for Tebow to connect with Demaryius Thomas on the first play from scrimmage, which a stiff-arming Thomas turned into a blazing eighty-yard touchdown haul. Tebow, who'd struggled in the chilly second half, finished with a 125.6 passer rating, the highest in Bronco post-season history.
5. Snow Business (November 29, 2015)
Is there anything sweeter than getting a chance to start after four years of riding the bench? How about making your home debut in a messy, snowy game in Denver, against Tom Brady and the undefeated New England Patriots? How about spotting the Pats fourteen points in the first half, then clawing your way back into the thick of it with clutch passes, a muffed punt, ferocious defense and, finally, an explosive dash from a much-maligned running back to win the game in overtime? For Brock Osweiler, there could be no better scenario than this frosty punchline: Broncos 30, Patriots 24.