It was a classic example of how to throw away a substantial lead. With the NFL's highest altitude, though, the Denver Broncos apparently have good lines of communication with somebody even higher up, because they survived some dreadful mistakes tonight to defeat the Minnesota Vikings 19-17.
The Broncos were 16 points ahead and laughing at the midpoint of the final period. At the end, they won only because Minnesota's Rick Danmeier was short with a 47-yard fieldgoal try on the final play, his second miss in 15 attempts this season.
The result left a lot of teams in knots, with Denver, Kansas City and San Diego sharing the AFC West lead and Minnesota tied with Tampa Bay for first place in the NFC Central. It left Denver Coach Dan Reeves' stomach in knots, too, because he came close to becoming the goat of the year with a fourth-down gamble he later called "a rookie mistake."
Many in the audience of 74,834 were heading home happy after a 15-yard touchdown pass from Craig Morton to Steve Watson gave Denver a 19-3 lead with 8:32 remaining.
In the next 3 1/2 minutes, however, quarterback Tommy Kramer drove the Vikings 80 yards in nine plays. Tony Galbreath scored from a yard out, although most of the distance was covered by Kramer's passes, as he completed five of six for 73 yards.
Another 2 1/2 minutes brought another one-yard touchdown by Galbreath. The second-guessers would have given Reeves a rough week if there had been more scoring.
The Broncos, with a 19-10 lead and three minutes to play, came up with a fourth-and-one situation at their own 40. It was punting time, but Reeves, as happened frequently during the night, was not sure. He called his last timeout to think about it and decided to go for a first down.
But the Vikings stopped Larry Canada for no gain.
"My thinking wasn't very good," Reeves said. "I may have done some more stupid things in my life, but I must have been little when I did them. It was just dumb. Thank God it didn't cost us the game. We'll punt next time in that situation."
Wide receiver Terry LeCount, on a splendid double reverse, covered 39 of the 40 yards on the first play. Kramer managed to block out one Bronco who tried to leap-frog him and Denver's Aaron Kyle missed a diving tackle attempt at the 15. When Galbreath took it in, 2:40 remained and the Vikings still had all their timeouts.
Despite this circumstance, Minnesota chose to try an onside kick, which failed when Denver's Dave Preston made a diving catch at the Minnesota 45. Matt Blair sacked Morton, and then Morton threw two incomplete passes, enabling the Vikings to preserve their timouts.
When Luke Prestridge punted to the Minnesota 15, there was still 2:09 on the clock.
Galbreath ran to his right and somehow got out of bounds for a nine-yard gain. After Galbreath got the first down, Kramer completed two straight passes for a first down at the 50.
Kramer finally threw one off target, but a late hit by end Rulon Jones gave Minnesota a first down at the Denver 35. Ted Brown gained seven and the Vikings were a first down away from excellent field-goal position for Dammeier.
The Broncos turned tough, however: Brown was stopped for a yard gain by linebacker Tom Jackson, and cornerback Perry Smith tackled Brown for a two-yard loss. It was a big play for Smith, who started when Louis Wright strained his right calf in the warm-ups.
The Vikings let the clock run down to five seconds, took their final timeout and put their faith in Danmeier's foot. It failed them.
"I hit it as hard as I could," said Danmeier, who made a 32-yarder earlier, "I just didn't hit it far enough.'.
The two-point margin made a hero of sorts of Denver's Fred Steinfort, who started the night by missing a 28-yard attempt. It was the 11th failure in 16 tries for Steinfort, who has been so bad the Broncos tried out three other kickers last week before sticking with him.
Steinfort came back to make field goals of 42 and 49 yards, earning handshakes from just about every player on the team