The last time the Dallas Cowboys bested the Denver Broncos in Colorado was Dec. 6, 1992. So long ago that Hall-of-Fame running back Emmitt Smith could only recall the thin air, not the 3-yard touchdown he scored on the game-winning drive.
"Outside of just knowing that with Denver and the air is thinner and it's hard to breathe in Denver," said Smith. "And the best thing about it was we played on a grass field, which was cool."
Well, let's refresh our friend Emmitt's memory.
Dallas was entering its December run after the annual 10-day Thanksgiving break after cooking the Giants 30-3. I mean, that game was so over John Madden used the telestrator to draw on the setting sun in the western Metroplex skies. Now, in the cold confines of Mile High Stadium, the Cowboys would battle for a win to stay atop the NFC East with Philadelphia and Washington, each at 7-5, sucking wind to keep Dallas in their sights.
Poor Dan Reeves was hoping for a Christmas miracle that December. John Elway injured his throwing shoulder Nov. 15 in a 27-13 win over the Giants, and now turned to first-round pick Tommy Maddox to hold things together for the 7-5 Broncos, who were in a race for the top of the AFC West with the 8-4 Chiefs and 7-5 Chargers. After two road losses to the Raiders and Seahawks, Denver was hopeful Maddox would deliver a win in his first home start.
The Cowboys struck first with a 6-yard Michael Irvin touchdown catch from Troy Aikman to take a 7-0 lead. Safety James Washington intercepted Maddox on the Denver drive and returned the takeaway to the Broncos 29-yard line where the offense quickly converted the free possession into seven points. Once again, it was Aikman finding Irvin in the end zone, this time for four yards and a 14-0 lead in the first quarter.
Before the quarter was through, Maddox would prove his giving spirit could help his teammates as he found receiver Vance Johnson for an 18-yard score to cut into Dallas' lead 14-7. Maddox would finish the game throwing for 104 yards and completing 10 of 17 with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Maddox's second touchdown was a 12-yard throw to receiver Mark Jackson. However, kicker David Treadwell missed an extra point and left Denver one point shy from a tie. The Cowboys would add a Lin Elliot 53-yard field goal before halftime to establish a 17-13 lead.
The third quarter was equally generous for the Cowboys as they took a 24-13 lead with Aikman connecting with tight end Jay Novacek for a 1-yard touchdown. The Plan B free agent from 1990 would finish with seven catches for 87 yards and a touchdown, but his best work was yet to come.
Denver mounted a comeback as Maddox hit running back Reggie Rivers for a 23-yard touchdown on a dump-off the rookie heaved off his back foot while evading the Dallas pass rush. Rivers skittered across the Mile High grass and across the goal line to pull within four of the Cowboys 24-20.
The Cowboys offense marched down the field and appeared to be on track to score another touchdown and extend their lead back to 11 points. However, a stalled drive inside the red zone at the 13-yard line. Elliott tried a 30-yard field goal but badly hooked it wide right to yield no points for the Cowboys, and, worse yet, give the Broncos momentum with 10:07 in the fourth quarter.
Boy, did Denver capitalize. On third-and-11 from the Broncos 19, Maddox threw a lateral in the right flat to receive Arthur Marshall, who chucked the ball to receiver Cedric Tillman for a go-ahead touchdown and take their first lead of the game 27-24.
Fullback Daryl Johnston will tell the story of how Aikman and Irvin had such great timing they could probably complete half of their passes blindfolded. However, Aikman's security blanket was Novacek, and it showed as the tight end caught three consecutive passes for 50 yards to put Dallas on the doorstep of the red zone at the 21-yard line.
Dallas avoided disaster and possibly their third loss on the season (that would come the following week in Washington) when Aikman lost the football while in the grasp of a Broncos sack. He fell on the ball to give the Cowboys another shot. On third-and-14 from the 25, Aikman threw to Irvin on a diving catch across the middle to just get the first down at the 10-yard line. The Cowboys moved the ball down to the Denver 3-yard line thanks to a defensive penalty and a 2-yard catch by Smith.
Then, the "memorable" part.
Dallas lined up in 11 personnel with receiver Alvin Harper and Irvin lined up wide with receiver Kelvin Martin lined up in the slot on the left side. Aikman took the snap from center Mark Stepnoski and quickly dropped into a three-step drop with a finishing touch of handing the ball into Smith's gut for a draw in between Stepnoski and left guard Nate Newton.
The Broncos attempted a comeback drive engineered by both Maddox and backup Shawn Moore, who went 7-of-13 for 104 yards. However, it was Maddox who threw the game-sealing interception to defensive back Kenneth Gant to help Dallas to an 11-2 mark, qualify them for at least a wildcard berth, and snap a nine-game home winning streak for the Broncos.
And that touchdown Smith scored? It was his 16th rushing touchdown of the season. It extended a record he had already broken en route to 18 on the season. But, hey, when you score an NFL career record 164 touchdowns (and shatter the team record again in '94 with 21 and once more in '95 with 25 to set another NFL record), maybe they all blend together.
What are your fondest Opening Week memories? Share 'em with Mark on Twitter @therealmarklane.