John Elway proved to himself what everyone else already knew -- that he belongs with the best quarterbacks who ever played in the NFL.
To Elway, only a Super Bowl victory does that. And he finally got one Sunday.
"They made this game for quarterbacks and you've got to win this game to be up there with the elite," Elway said after the Denver Broncos' 31-24 victory vs. Green Bay gave him his first Super Bowl win in four tries.
"It wouldn't have been a complete career."
It is now -- even after losses in 1987, 1988 and 1990 by a total of 96 points.
Elway lingered amid the chaos on the field long after the game was over.
He clasped the silver Vince Lombardi trophy and pressed it against his cheek, a look of utter relief on his face. Then he hoisted his 8-year-old son, Jack, on his shoulder as he slowly made his way to he locker room.
It was over.
Elway did not break the NFC's string of 13 straight victories all by himself.
MVP Terrell Davis gained 157 yards in 30 carries and scored three times on 1-yard runs, including the winner with 1:45 left in the game. Fritz Shurmur, the Packers' defensive coordinator, acknowledged the Packers let the Broncos score so they could have time to come back.
They did, but their final chance ended when John Mobley knocked down Brett Favre's pass from the Denver 31 with 28 seconds left.
Davis starred despite a migraine headache that caused him to miss most of the second quarter.
"I couldn't see," said Davis, a nose tackle at San Diego's Lincoln High. "I needed halftime to get back into the game. You can't top this. I wanted to come back home and do well."
Elway also got help from the Packers, who committed three turnovers -- the first by an NFC team in four Super Bowls -- that led to 10 Denver points.
If this wasn't the best Super Bowl ever, it was close to it, despite a lot of sloppiness -- 16 penalties and five turnovers by the two teams. Elway threw an end-zone interception when the Broncos had a chance to go ahead by more than a touchdown late in the third quarter.
But otherwise, it was two heavyweights going punch for punch -- Favre, who was 25-of-42 for 257 yards, threw for three TDs, two to Antonio Freeman. Davis had three 1-yard TD runs and Elway had a fourth.
"It was like a basketball game," Green Bay running back Dorsey Levens said. "They score. We score. They score. We score. We just weren't able to get that extra score."
For Elway, this was vindication in perhaps his last shot at a title. He was carried off the field by teammates as the oldest quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl.
It may have been his last game. Before the game, he had talked about retiring.
"I'm going to take a few weeks off and think about it," Elway said. "I want to talk to my teammates and everyone around me and see what's best for my family."
The victory kept Denver from becomin the first team ever to lose five -- it lost one in 1978, before Elway arrived.
"They disrespected us all week," Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "Everybody disrespected us. They never faced a running game like ours. They never faced a quarterback like ours. They never faced a coach who puts in a game plan like Mike Shanahan."
As for the AFC, it hadn't won since the Raiders, then in Los Angeles, beat Washington 38-9 in 1984, Elway's first season. Instead, Denver joined the 1981 Raiders as the only wild cards to win the title.
And finally, it was the first win for the quarterback class of 1983 that included Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino.
"In kind of a strange way -- John Elway, I've always enjoyed him," Packers coach Mike Holmgren said. "I just wished he hadn't done it against me."
The Packers hurt themselves with three critical penalties late in the game.
They included a holding call and a false start on rookie left tackle Ross Verba that bottled Green Bay deep with the game tied 24-all and less than five minutes left. Then a face mask on Darius Holland gave the Broncos 15 key yards on their game-winning 49-yard drive.
But nonetheless, it was Elway's game.
He scrambled 8 yards to set up a touchdown, and scored on a 1-yard run -- a lot like the young Elway. He finished 12-of-22 for 122 yards and threw one end-zone interception.
Each team scored a touchdown on its first possession, the first time that's happened in a Super Bowl.
Then Denver jumped to a 17-7 lead before a 17-play, 95-yard scoring drive by the Packers, second longest in Super Bowl history. That cut it to 17-14 at halftime and Green Bay seemed to have momentum.
But Elway engineered a 92-yard drive of his own to give the Broncos a 24-17 lead. Then, after Elway threw the interception, the Packers went 85 yards in just four plays to tie it.
The third quarter did not start well for Denver.
Davis fumbled on his first carry of the second half, and Brian Williams recovered at the Denver 26.
That led to Ryan Longwell's 27-yard field goal that tied it at 17. An offside penalty on a successful 39-yard kick had given the Packers a second chance at a TD, but they couldn't take advantage.
Late in the third quarter, the Broncos drove nearly the length of the field on 13 plays for a touchdown on Davis' 1-yard run. Elway combined with Ed McCaffrey on a 36-yard play and helped set up the score with an 8-yard scramble that ended when he was sandwiched by tacklers and spun around in the air at the Green Bay 4.
Then came a bizarre sequence.
Freeman fumbled the kickoff and Denver's Tim McKyer recovered at the Green Bay 22. But on the next play, Elway's pass into the end zone was intercepted by Eugene Robinson.
The Packers then tied it two minutes later on Favre's 13-yard pass to Freeman at the end of another long drive -- 85 yards on four plays, helped by a 25-yard pass interference all on Darrien Gordon.
Green Bay struck first, just 4:02 into the game, on a 22-yard pass from Favre to Freeman. Freeman split the Denver secondary, beating safety Steve Atwater after Gordon blitzed.
But the key play of the 76-yard, seven-play drive was the second, when Favre managed to throw the ball away after Neil Smith and Maa Tanuvasa seemed to have him trapped for a sack.
Denver came right back, going 58 yards on 10 plays.
The key was a defensive holding call on Green Bay's Doug Evans as Elway
threw an incomplete pass on third-and-10 from the Packers 46.
On the next play, Davis went 27 yards around left end to the 14. Elway scrambled to the 2, and then Davis went in from the 1 two plays later to tie it at 7.
Soon after, Tyrone Braxton intercepted Favre, setting up a 45-yard, eight-play drive capped by Elway's 1-yard rollout into the end zone on the first play of the second quarter.
"This erases a lot of the bad memories, a lot of the bad feelings. Now we just want to sit back and enjoy it," said Braxton, with Elway and Atwater the only Broncos left from their last team to lose a Super Bowl.
Less than three minutes later it was 17-7 on Jason Elam's 51-yard field goal. It was set up when Atwater blitzed Favre, hit him and forced a fumble that Smith recovered at the Green Bay 33.
Then the Packers went 95 yards in 17 plays, capped by Favre's 6-yard TD pass to Mark Chmura on a third down in the corner of the end zone with 12 seconds left in the half.
Then came the second half and more back and forth.
"This was a lot of fun for the whole NFL," said Denver cornerback Ray Crockett. "These were the two best teams in the world and we played for it."
But it was Elway's game, a fact acknowledged by Favre, who has won three straight league MVPs.
"He's had a great career," Favre said, "and he finally got the most important thing that the NFL has to offer."
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