DENVER -- The Drive was the Denver Broncos' defining moment, all but etched in stone tablet since it took place in Cleveland five years ago.
But quarterback John Elway proved yesterday he has little respect for history.
At Mile High Stadium, with the goal posts pressed against his back, Elway drove the Broncos 87 yards from their 2-yard line all the way to the AFC championship game, as David Treadwell's 28-yard field goal with 16 seconds remaining gave Denver a 26-24 victory over the Houston Oilers.
It was a series that, by comparison, reduces The Drive into The Stroll in Elway lore. In the 1986 season's AFC title game, Elway took the Broncos 98 yards in 15 plays to score a last-second touchdown that tied the score against Cleveland. The Broncos won in overtime, 23-20.
But Elway had three timeouts to start that drive. Against Houston, Elway had nothing but the off-season ahead of him.
The Oilers made one crucial mistake against Elway. They punted for the first time yesterday with 2:07 to play. Greg Montgomery lofted a 44-yard kick that angled the ball out of bounds at the Denver 2.
Elway looked at the clock, the score, and headed for the huddle.
"I was going out saying, 'Whoa, what a great punt,' " Elway said.
Wide receiver Michael Young watched the other Drive from his couch. This time, he was in the huddle.
"His eyes got real big," Young said of Elway. "I mean saucers. I'm telling the truth. It was great. You could see the adrenalin going through him."
Still, there were doubters. Down by a point, 98 yards to go, no timeouts?
"If I had to bet my life, I would not have guessed we could have pulled it out," Young said.
Elway popped his head in the huddle, said, "Let's go, this is it," and called Young's number. Elway threw a 22-yard pass to Young, and the march was on.
Elway then averted one disaster after another. Facing fourth-and-six at his 28, he broke free out of the pocket and scrambled 7 yards for the first down with 1:28 left.
The huddle came alive. Denver center Dave Widell, who watched quarterback Doug Flutie pull off a few miracles while both were playing at Boston College, remembered the look.
"It's indescribable," Widell said of Elway. "But I'm glad he's got it."
With 59 seconds to play, Elway faced fourth-and-10 at his 35. One slip and the game was over. Elway's first idea, a pass to Vance Johnson, was foiled, so he did what he does best -- he improvised. When it appeared Elway was going to run again, the Oilers defense charged the line to meet him.
But Elway stopped short of the line and floated a pass to Johnson, whose defender had left him open in the left flat.
"It wasn't the prettiest pass," Elway said, "but I got it to him."
Johnson turned and went 44 yards down the sideline to the Houston 21 with 50 seconds to play.
The Broncos were in field-goal range. Young remembers looking at Elway after the fourth-down conversion.
"He didn't even look surprised," Young said. "It was like something he does every day."
The game was left to a short field-goal attempt by Treadwell, but this was no given. Treadwell had missed an extra-point attempt earlier and is known for having a low trajectory on his kicks. James FitzPatrick of the Los Angeles Raiders blocked a last-second kick by Treadwell to save a 17-16 victory this season. But Treadwell put this one through, well inside the right upright.
"After the game," said Broncos safety Dennis Smith, "I told him [Elway], 'You're the best, man.' In this situation, there's nobody better. There's nobody I'd rather have. Without him, we wouldn't have won this game today."
Denver coach Dan Reeves said: "When you've got No. 7, anything's possible. Unbelievable. I don't think I've ever been involved, in my 26 or so years in the game, that I've seen a team go 90-something yards with no timeouts . . . I'm numb."
The Broncos had fallen behind, 21-6, before the second quarter was five minutes old, as the defense struggled mightily with Houston's run-and-shoot offense before settling down.
Denver came back with 13 points in the second half, and scored a touchdown with 6:53 left in the game to pull within 24-23.
The reason it was one point was because the Broncos had blown a PAT kick after their first touchdown, as holder Gary Kubiak dropped the snap from center.
The Drive II
Play-by-play of the Denver Broncos' game-winning drive in their 26-24 victory over the Houston Oilers, with the down and yards to go, yard line and time remaining:
1-10, D2, 2:07: Elway 22 pass right side to Young.
1-10, D24, 1:58: Elway incomplete, intended for Young.
2-10, D24, 1:52: Elway incomplete, overthrew V.Johnson deep.
3-10, D24, 1:47: Elway 4 pass left side to Nattiel. Young injured on play, officials run 10 seconds off clock.
4-6, D28, 1:28: Elway 7 scramble left, out of bounds.
1-10, D35, 1:17: Elway incomplete, pass tipped at line of scrimmage.
2-10, D35, 1:14: Elway incomplete, overthrew Russell deep.
3-10, D35, 1:08: Elway incomplete, overthrew V.Johnson deep. Houston calls timeout.
4-10, D35, 0:59: Elway 44 pass left side to V.Johnson, out of bounds.
4 1-10, H21, 0:50: Sewell 10 run around right end.
1-10, H11, 0:22: Elway spikes ball to stop clock.
9- 2-10, H11, 0:20: Treadwell 28 field goal.