They didn't know it at the time, but Terrell Davis and his 1998 Broncos' defeated the blueprint of what would become the greatest run of success in NFL history.
After largely coasting through the regular season to the tune of a 14-2 record, the defending champion Broncos throttled Dan Marino and the Dolphins in the divisional round, 38-3. But in the AFC Championship Game, the Broncos found themselves trailing the Jets 10-0 three minutes into the second half. After being befuddled by defensive coordinator Bill Belichick's defense for over 30 minutes, Denver's offense woke up on a 47-yard completion from John Elway to Ed McCaffrey. The play opened the floodgates for 23 unanswered points en route to Denver's second consecutive Super Bowl berth. The Broncos then successfully defended their title, routing the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Denver's brief reign atop the NFL ended following Elway's retirement the ensuing offseason. Two years later, Belichick led the Patriots to their first of six Super Bowls over the next two decades. And while the Patriots' run has set a new standard for sustained excellence, Davis -- a Hall of Fame running back and co-founder of DEFY -- feels that the Broncos set the template that was quickly emulated by Belichick's Patriots.
"We had really, really good players," Davis recently told CBS Sports. "We had outstanding coaching. We had a solid system. We had a combination of really unselfish guys who played for each other who didn't really care who got the credit, and that's rare. And we had a singular focus. We were the Patriots before the Patriots. They talk about the 'Patriot Way,' well we had the 'Bronco Way.' We had players who didn't buy into that, and Mike [Shanahan] moved them out of the locker room."
Like many of Belichick's teams in New England, Shanahan's Broncos were largely a collection of overlooked yet motivated players. Along with Davis (a sixth-round pick who went onto win league and Super Bowl MVP honors), the Broncos' key offensive players in those years included undrafted receiver Rod Smith, journeyman receiver Ed McCaffrey, tight end Shannon Sharpe (a seventh-round pick), fullback Howard Griffith (ninth-round pick), linemen Mark Schlereth (10th-round pick), Tom Nalen (seventh-round pick) and Tony Jones (undrafted). Defensively, the Broncos had a Hall of Fame safety in Steve Atwater, a nasty linebacker in Bill Romanowski, and an elite pass rusher in Neil Smith, who came over from the rival Chiefs in order to win a Super Bowl.
"We didn't have a lot of big names," Davis said. "We had John, but John was at the end. And he didn't care about throwing for 5,000 yards. He just wanted to win."
Davis believes that the Broncos held a unique advantage with Shanahan, who won a Super Bowl as the 49ers' offensive coordinator in 1994 before coming to Denver. The same can be said of the Patriots' undeniable edge with Belichick, who won two rings as the Giants' defensive coordinator earlier in his career.
"Mike was phenomenal," Davis said. "He was a teacher. The way he prepared us for games. The way he allowed us to have input and to be able to create the environment for training, for recovery, nutrition, all that stuff.
"We probably had the most people on our staff in terms of people who weren't coaches that Mike brought in because players said, 'Mike, I think this guy would be good if we bring him in on our staff.' That's how we rolled."
Along with a having selfless, term-first culture, both teams started their historic runs with Super Bowl upsets. Denver shocked Brett Favre and the defending champion Packers in Super Bowl XXXII, become the AFC's first Super Bowl champion in 13 years. Four years later, the Patriots were 14-point underdogs when they staged a 20-17 upset win over the Rams, who were vying to win their second Super Bowl in three years.
Both franchises possessed Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Elway and Tom Brady, who will be fitted for a gold jacket five years after he hangs up his cleats. But unlike Brady, Elway chose to end his career on top after being named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII. Elway, who had contemplated retirement after winning his first Super Bowl, missed four games to injury during the '98 season. He would also be 39 before the start of the '99 season, an age that was considered ancient at that time. And while the Broncos remained competitive through the 2000s (Denver actually ended the Patriots' quest for a three-peat during the '05 playoffs before losing to Pittsburgh in the AFC title game), the Broncos wouldn't make it back to the Super Bowl until Elway lured Peyton Manning to Denver.
The Patriots are the only team to repeat as champion since Davis and the Broncos did so in 1998. The Buccaneers, Brady's new team, have a good chance to join that group in 2021, as each of their 22 starters from their 2020 team are still in Tampa. And while he didn't say how his Denver team would have faired under those Patriots squads, Davis wasn't bashful when assessing his team's chances against the current champs.
"If we played in today's game, absolutely, we would have beaten the Bucs last year."