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John Elway, operating on a wobbly left ankle, fired a 48-yd. scoring pass to Vance Johnson on the final play of the third quarter, lifting the injury-riddled Denver Broncos to a 22-17 NFL playoff victory over the New England Patriots yesterday.
With the victory, the Broncos advanced to the American Conference championship game against the Cleveland Browns next Sunday in Cleveland.
Elway, whose first-period delay of game penalty cost the Broncos a possible touchdown, scrambled 22 yards for a second-quarter score, directed a time-consuming third-period drive for a field goal, then hit Johnson for the game-winner.
Johnson raced toward the end zone, beating cornerback Ernest Gibson and hauling in Elway's long heave at the goal-line for a 20-17 lead.
Three minutes earlier, Tony Eason had thrown his second TD pass to Stanley Morgan for a 17-13 Patriots' lead. That score came on a wellexecuted flea-flicker, with fullback Mosi Tatupu taking a handoff and passing backward to Eason, who then found Morgan 45 yards downfield for the TD.
The Broncos offense was able to control the ball on the ground in the second half, and the defense protected the three-point lead with a trio of stands in the final quarter. On the Pats' final possession, defensive end Rulon Jones sacked Eason in the end zone for a safety with 1:37 left.
Elway left the game late in the first half with a sprained ankle after being sacked, but it was retaped at intermission and he returned to action. Three other Denver starters, however, suffered injuries and did not return.
Elway's ill-advised penalty came late in the opening period. He ran three yards for what he felt was a touchdown, but when the official signalled the ball down just short of the goal line, he angrily spiked the ball, drawing the penalty. The Broncos, pushed back to the 6, had to settle for a Rich Karlis field goal.
The victory snapped a four-game losing streak for the Broncos in the playoffs. They hadn't won in the post-season since their 1977 Super Bowl season.
The Patriots, who won three road games to capture the AFC title a year ago, joined last year's Super Bowl opponent, the Chicago Bears, on the sideline for the remainder of the playoffs. The Bears were defeated by Washington on Saturday.
Elway, fighting wildness early in the game, had consecutive completions of 39 yards to Steve Sewell and 21 yards to Steve Watson as Denver drove inside the Patriots' 10. Elway's penalty stymied that series, but Karlis kicked a 27-yd. field goal.
New England struck back immediately, marching 87 yards in seven plays for a go-ahead touch-down. Eason passed 19 yards to Morgan in the corner of the end zone for the score just minutes into the second period.
Elway countered on the next series, taking Denver 82 yards in 13 plays, running the final 22 yards himself for a 10-7 advanage.
The Patriots produced a 10-10 halftime tie on Tony Franklin's 38-yd. field goal. The kick came after Elway was hit by Andre Tippett, and linebacker Johnny Rembert intercepted at the Denver 29. Elway was hurt on that play.
Denver took the second-half kickoff and moved to a 13-10 lead. The 15-play, 80-yd. drive ate up more than nine minutes, and Karlis kicked a 22-yd. field goal.
Three minutes later, however, the Patriots wrested the lead again. New England had little success running the ball, but Craig James got the drive started with a 17-yd. run, and the flea-flicker capped the 78-yd. march with 2:50 left in the third period.
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