Super Bowl XXI was an American football game between the American Football Conference (AFC) champion Denver Broncos and the National Football Conference (NFC) champion New York Giants to decide the National Football League (NFL) champion for the 1986 season….as the game was played on January 25, 1987 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
This was the Broncos’ second Super Bowl appearance….led predominately by the play of QB John Elway….along with a defense that led the AFC in fewest yards allowed….as the Broncos posted an 11–5 regular season record….followed by two narrow playoff victories. The Giants were led by quarterback Phil Simms, running back Joe Morris, and their “Big Blue Wrecking Crew” defense…. and advanced to their first Super Bowl after posting a 14–2 regular season record….while only allowing a combined total of 3 points in their two postseason wins.
The game was tight in the first half, with the Broncos holding a 10–9 halftime leadwhich was the narrowest halftime margin in Super Bowl history. The only score in the second quarter, however, was Giants DE George Martin’s sack of Elway in the end zone for a safety….which began a Giants run of scoring 26 unanswered points through the third and fourth quarters. The Giants also posted a Super Bowl record 30 points in the second half….while limiting the Broncos to only 2 net yards in the third quarter. Giants QB Phil Simms was named the Super Bowl MVP….after finishing the game with 22 of 25 passes completed for 268 yards and three touchdowns….as he also had 25 rushing yards on 3 carries. His 22 out of 25 (88%) completion percentage not only broke a Super Bowl record….but also set an NFL postseason record that lasted for 21 years. This remains the only Super Bowl win for the Giants against a team that did not come from the AFC East….when otherwise they have defeated Buffalo once and New England twice.
The telecast of the game on CBS was seen by an estimated 87.2 million viewers.….for this was one of the first times that a very large, national audience saw what is now the traditional Gatorade shower….whereby the players dump a cooler full of liquid over a coach’s head following a meaningful win….in a practice that was first started by Giants players in 1985….but it did not gain much national prominence until this 1986 season.
The Giants advanced to their first Super Bowl in team history….and were playing for their first league championship since they lost to the Chicago Bears in the 1963 NFL Championship Game….as the Giants were led by QB Phil Simms….who threw for 3,487 yards and 21 touchdowns….but also had 22 interceptions….as Simms’ main target was tight end Mark Bavaro….who caught 66 passes for 1,001 yards and 4 touchdowns. Although the Giants did not have one great wide receiver….they did have several good ones….in the likes of Stacy Robinson, Bobby Johnson and Phil McConkey….who combined for 76 receptions and 1,307 yards….as running the ball was the Giants’ primary offensive attack. Running back Joe Morris finished the regular season with a then-franchise record 1,516 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns….while also catching 21 passes for 223 yards and another touchdown. One reason for his success was fullback Maurice Carthon….who provided Morris with excellent blocking and was the team’s second leading rusher with 260 yards….plus the play of their offensive line which was led by Pro Bowl left tackle Brad Benson and right tackle Karl Nelson. On special teams, punter Sean Landeta made the Pro Bowl with an average of 44.8 gross yards per punt….with a net average of 37.1….while having 24 punts end up inside their opponents 20 yard line.
The Giants also had a lot of weapons on their defense….which was nicknamed The “Big Blue Wrecking Crew”….who after giving up 31 points in their opening day regular season loss to the Dallas Cowboys….the Giants had not given up more than 20 points in a game until the last game of the season in a 55–24 win over the Green Bay Packers. The Giants’ defensive leader was Hall of Fame outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor….who led the NFLwith 20.5 sacks during the regular season….while winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award for the third time in his career….thus becoming just the second defensive player to ever win the MVP Award….for at 6’3″ and 245 pounds….Taylor was big enough to break through the offensive lines of many teams….while still having enough speed to chase down running backs. The Giants’ other starting linebackers, Gary Reasons, Carl Banks, and Harry Carson….did not get as much media attention as Taylor, but Carson had been selected to play in the Pro Bowl, while Reasons had two interceptions and Banks recorded 6.5 sacks and 2 fumble recoveries. Nose tackle Jim Burt and right end Leonard Marshall….who were also both selected to the Pro Bowl after anchoring the defensive line….as Marshall recorded 12 sacks, 3 fumble recoveries, and 1 interception during the season. With the play of their defense, the running attack led by Morris, and Simms’ passing game….the Giants earned a 14–2 regular season record.
The Broncos on the other hand….won the AFC West with an 11–5 regular season record, largely through the play of QB John Elway….who In just his fourth season in the league made an impact to the team with his ad-libbing skills…..where during the regular season he had thrown for 3,480 yards and 19 touchdowns….while also rushing for 257 yards….as the third-leading rusher on the team. Elway did not really have a particular receiver who caught most of his passes during the regular season….but wideouts Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson, Steve Watson and tight end Orson Mobley all combined for 136 receptions and 2,132 yards. Pro Bowl running back Sammy Winder was the Broncos’ top rusher with 789 yards and 9 touchdowns….while also catching 26 passes for another 171 yards and 5 touchdowns….and RB Gerald Willhite rushed for 365 yards and 5 touchdowns….while also leading the team in receptions with 64 for 529 yards and three touchdowns….and ranking third in the NFL in both punt return yards (468) and yards per return average (11.1). The Broncos also had a powerful offensive line which was led by Pro Bowl guard Keith Bishop.
The Broncos’ defense led the AFC in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,651)….with a defensive line anchored by Pro Bowl DE Rulon Jones….who recorded 13.5 sacks and a fumble recovery….and then there was the Bronco linebacking corps led by three-time Pro Bowler Tom Jackson and Karl Mecklenburg….who recorded 9.5 sacks and were viewed as comparable to the Giants’ Pro Bowl linebackers. Denver’s secondary was led by Pro Bowl cornerbacks Dennis Smith and Louis Wright….along with Mike Harden….who had intercepted 6 passes and returned them for 179 yards and 2 touchdowns. Louis Wright, Steve Foley, and Tom Jackson were the last remnants of Denver’s Orange Crush defense of the 1970s….as all would retire after this Super Bowl.
Elway’s ability to improvise on the fly helped Denver to make it through the playoffs after narrowly defeating the New England Patriots 22–17 in the AFC Divisional Playoffs….and the Cleveland Browns 23–20, in the AFC Championship Game. The AFC Championship Game against the Browns was particularly significant because Elway displayed why many NFL experts thought Super Bowl XXI would be the first of many Super Bowls for him….for in what became known as “The Drive”….the Broncos started from their own 2-yard line while trailing 20–13 with just 5:32 left to play….but in 15 plays, Elway led Denver 98 yards for a game-tying touchdown pass with 39 seconds left….after whiech the Broncos then won in overtime after Elway led them 60 yards in 9 plays to set up kicker Rich Karlis’ game-winning field goal.
Meanwhile, the Giants went through the NFC playoffs in dominating fashion….while only allowing a combined total of 3 points in their playoff victories over the San Francisco 49ers, 49–3….and the Washington Redskins in a 17–0 shutout. Such a dominating performance by the Giants’ defense gave the team a lot of confidence going into the Super Bowl matchup versus the Broncos.
The Giants defeated the Broncos by the score of 39–20….and winning their first ever Super Bowl….and their first NFL title since 1956.