DENVER -- Just when you think John Elway has done it all on a football field, he does something new to take your breath away.
Elway threw a game-winning touchdown pass on the final play for the first time in his storied career yesterday to give the Denver Broncos a 38-31 victory over the Washington Redskins at Mile High Stadium.
The 43-yarder was caught by a backup player named Rod Smith, who had never caught a pass in the NFL.
It was a memorable game that included 830 yards of offense, 48 first downs, 240 yards of return yardage by Brian Mitchell (most ever against the Broncos) along with his 36-yard touchdown run on an option play and a pair of controversial calls that cost the Redskins two touchdowns.
But even though there were 118 offensive snaps, only the last one is likely to be remembered.
The teams seemed headed for overtime when they lined up on the Washington 43 with six seconds left.
Smith, who was lined up as the lone receiver on the left side, was in the game because wide receiver Anthony Miller was out with a concussion. Two other Broncos offensive starters -- tight end Shannon Sharpe and running back Rod Bernstine -- also had been knocked out.
"I was just hoping we'd be able to fill the huddle each play," Elway said.
Both sides knew Elway had to go to the end zone because the Broncos were out of timeouts. The Redskins were in a three-deep zone with Darrell Green on Smith's side.
The Redskins' rushers were pushed past Elway, and he stepped up in the pocket and fired a line drive to Smith, who leaped in front of Green to catch it.
"I was stunned," Elway said of the catch.
"It took me a little bit to realize what happened. That was awesome. I just wish we could still be out there because it was such a great feeling. I wasn't sure he was in the end zone until I saw the referee's hands go up. It's the first time since I've played football that I've thrown a touchdown pass on the last play," Elway said.
Smith, a first-year receiver who spent last season on the Broncos' practice squad, said: "This was really special because it was my first NFL catch. I was just trying to go down the field and outjump him [Green]. I'm glad I've finally got a ball to give my mom."
Several Redskins players fell to the ground in disbelief.
Green said: "This is a heartbreaker, and it's just a play we never should have let happen."
When Green was asked if he was surprised, he said, "Any time you beat me, I'm surprised."
Ron Lynn, the team's defensive coordinator who was coaching at Cal in 1982 when Elway brought Stanford from behind in the final seconds only to lose on the five-lateral kickoff return through the Stanford band, said, "He's done this stuff to a whole bunch of people. I'm not the Lone Ranger."
Elway has brought the Broncos from behind 34 times in the fourth quarter (33 wins and a tie), but this one won't count because the Broncos never trailed late.
The Redskins are now 1-2 this year, 4-15 since Norv Turner became coach and 8-27 since Joe Gibbs quit after the 1992 season.
But Turner saw positive signs because Gus Frerotte passed for 233 yards, Mitchell accounted for 290 total yards and Michael Westbrook caught three passes, including a 45-yarder he took away from Tyrone Braxton. All that, even though the Broncos had a 38:06 to 21:54 edge in time of possession.
"We're going to be a very good offensive football team," Turner said.
He didn't even complain about two questionable calls that could have cost the Redskins the game.
The officials gave Terrell Davis a 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter even though the replays appeared to indicate he fumbled before he got in the end zone and Tom Carter recovered for the Redskins. That touchdown gave the Broncos a 24-7 lead.
There also was debate about whether Westbrook was pushed out of the end zone on a catch in the third period. The Redskins then settled for a field goal.
Turner said: "You can't get upset about bad calls. I mean, I could yell and scream, but the call was made and that's that."
Turner seems convinced the Redskins will rebound from the tough defeat. "Today's game will either make a team stronger or it will hurt you. I think it will make us stronger and better."