The 1986 NFL title game shaped up to be a defensive battle with the NFL-best New York Giants, who held their regular season opponents to the second fewest points in the league, facing the Denver Broncos, who led the AFC in fewest rushing yards allowed (1,651) during the regular season. The two teams also featured exceptional quarterbacks with nearly identical numbers for the seasons as New York's Phil Simms threw for 3,487 yards and 21 touchdowns (55.3 completion percentage) and Denver's young John Elway matched him with 3,485 passing yards and 19 touchdowns (55.6 completion percentage). The Giants, however, had the "Big Blue Wrecking Crew" defense led by young linebacker, AP and PFWA NFL Most Valuable Player and future Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, as well as fellow future Hall of Famer linebacker Harry Carson, All-Pro linebacker Carl Banks and Pro-Bowl defensive end Leonard Marshall. Aside from the first and last games of the regular season, they held every opponent to 20 points or less led New York to a 14-2 record heading into the playoffs. They then trounced the San Francisco 49ers 49-3 in the Divisional Playoff and shut out the Washington Redskins 17-0 in the AFC Conference Championship. The Broncos still employed former Orange Crush member and All-Pro linebacker Yom Jackson as well as All-Pro linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and Pro Bowl defensive end Rulon Jones. Denver's greatest asset, however, was their fourth year quarterback and future Hall of Famer John Elway, who had a knack for getting himself out of sticky situations and leading his team in fourth quarter comebacks. (He is third all-time in 4th quarter comebacks with 35.) He led the Broncos to an 11-5 record in the regular season and then narrowly squeaked past the New England Patriots 22-17 in the AFC Divisional Playoff. In the AFC Conference Championship, facing the AFC-best Cleveland Browns and down 20-13, Elway engineered one of those comebacks beginning from Denver's 2-yard line. The young gunslinger took the Broncos 98 yards to score the game-tying touchdown with 39 seconds left in the game. "The Drive", as it has come to be known, forced overtime and the Broncos capitalized by kicking a 33-yard field goal in OT to win 23-20.
Super Bowl XXI took place at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on January 25, 1987 in front of a crowd of more than 101,000 fans. The first three drives of the first quarter yielded points as Denver scored a 48-yard Rich Karliss field goal in the first drive, the Giants answered when Phil Simms hit tight end Zeke Mowatt with a 6-yards touchdown pass on the second drive and then John Elway rushed for 4 yards to give Denver a 10-7 lead over New York. At a critical moment in the second quarter, when the Broncos drove 79 yards down to the Giants 1-yard line, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew kept Denver out of the end zone on three straight downs. Rich Karliss then missed the ensuing fields goal attempt. The only scoring in the second occurred later when Giants defensive tackle sacked Elway in the end zone for a safety. Denver took a narrow 10-9 lead into halftime. A trick play from head coach Bill Parcells and two pass completions from Simms set up the next New York score on a 13-yard pass to tight end Mark Bavaro to take the lead 16-10. They struck twice more with a Raul Allegre 21-yard field goal and a Joe Morris 1-yard rushing touchdown to increase their lead to 26-10 heading into the fourth quarter. The Giants kept the pressure on the Broncos on both sides of the ball for the remainder of the game and scored two more times on a 6-yard Phil Simms pass to Phil McConkley and a 2-yard rush from running back Ottis Anderson. Denver did manage two more score on another Rich Karliss 28-yard field goal and a 47-yard TD pass from Elway to wide receiver Vance Johnson, but the game was out of reach. Phil Simms competed 22 of his 25 passing attempts for 268 yards and three touchdowns to earn the Super Bowl XXI Most Valuable Player award. The Giants beat the Broncos by a score of 39-20, but it would not be the last we'd see of John Elway and the Denver Broncos in the NFL championship game.