What We Learned
Three things we know after the Broncos-Dolphins gamePosted: Sunday December 02, 2001 8:30 PM
Updated: Sunday December 02, 2001 8:45 PM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
MIAMI -- Listless for three quarters, Miami scored three touchdowns in a 3:46 span of the fourth quarter to defeat visiting Denver 21-10 on Sunday at Pro Player Stadium. The win, combined with the Jets' loss to New England, lifted the Dolphins back into sole possession of the AFC East lead at 8-3. Here are three observations from the game:
1. Stop us if you've heard this one before, but Terrell Davis is back.
Well, for now at least. When it comes to the battle-scarred Denver running back, his status gives new meaning to day-to-day. Seeing his first action in three weeks, following his second arthroscopic knee surgery of the season, Davis was more than a shadow of his former self, gaining a game-high 97 yards on 20 carries.
The Broncos didn't win, but you can't fault Davis, who has missed a total of eight games this season and 32 of his past 40 dating to early 1999. Davis ran hard, showed several flashes of elusiveness, and consistently picked up the tough yard. His showing was Denver's lone offensive bright spot.
And it's not like the Dolphins weren't expecting him. With the entire Broncos receiving corps entering play Sunday with a combined eight career catches -- starters Rod Smith and Keith Poole were both out with injuries -- Denver had little choice but to turn to Davis and second-year running back Mike Anderson.
And while we're at it, what does Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan have against Anderson? The ex-Marine got a paltry six carries against Miami, gaining 24 yards. That lifted his season totals to 638 yards on 162 rushes, both of which are team highs. With Davis and Olandis Gary taking turns on the injury list for the past two years, all Anderson has done is stay healthy and gained about 2,100 yards.
So what's his reward for all that production? Shanahan declares Davis his starter this week, basically relegating Anderson to backup status. Given the $10 million contract extension Anderson signed just before the regular season opened, that's a lot of money for a No. 2 man.
Davis, meanwhile, is on the bubble for next season. The Broncos can't count on Gary to come back from two season-ending leg injuries in two years, and his marketability has been severely hurt by his injuries and his limited use this season. That leaves the oft-injured Davis, or Anderson as the team's primary back for 2002.
If this was the first battle in their head-to-head competition for next year's starting job, score it Davis 1, Anderson 0.
2. To be sure, Denver didn't help its playoff chances by blowing a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead against the Dolphins. But don't despair Broncos fans, there's still hope.
Shanahan came out last week and said his then 6-5 team needed to win four of its final five games to make the postseason. They're 0-1 and just removed its margin of error in that quest. That the Broncos let one slip away on the same field on which they won Super Bowl XXXIII less than 35 months ago made Sunday hurt a little bit more.
But a check of the schedule says the Broncos last four games are all winnable, and a 10-6 finish is still within reach.
Denver's toughest game of its last five was this road date with the Dolphins. The Broncos (6-6) finish the final fourth of their schedule with home games against division rivals Seattle and Oakland and road games at Kansas City and Indianapolis. They always handle the Raiders at home, and winning at Indy isn't as tough as it used to be.
Winning all four may be a longshot, but Denver gets at least one break. The team's bye comes right in the middle of that four-game stretch, allowing the Broncos to approach it from a standpoint of trying to put together a pair of two-game winning streaks to reach the playoffs.
New England (7-5) jumped ahead of Denver in the wild-card chase, but the Broncos know they only have to tie the Patriots in order to get the nod. Denver defeated New England in late October, and holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. Cleveland (6-5) also is still ahead of the Broncos, by a half-game, but the Browns were upset at home by Tennessee on Sunday and lost a chance to pick up more ground.
3. Lamar Smith hasn't been much of lead running back this season, and Miami never knows what it's going to get from streaky quarterback Jay Fiedler. But the Dolphins have unearthed the real deal in rookie receiver Chris Chambers.
In his past four games, Chambers, a second-round pick out of Wisconsin, hasn't put up scary numbers: 13 receptions for 274 yards. But everything he has done has been huge. Chambers has five touchdown catches in that span, four in the fourth quarter.
A week after his two fourth-quarter scores brought the Dolphins back for a 31-24 victory at Buffalo last week, he was at it again Sunday. Chambers had just three catches for 35 yards against Denver, but the biggest one was an 11-yard touchdown catch 1:15 into the fourth quarter, which launched Miami's 21-point, final-quarter comeback.
When the game gets tight, Fiedler has quickly learned to look Chambers' way. No other Dolphins receiver has more than two scoring catches, and Chambers' five touchdowns are second behind only Smith's seven (five rushing, two receiving).
More important, Chambers is learning how to use a 5-foot-11, 210 pound frame that plays much bigger than it looks on paper. One Dolphins teammate compares Chambers' ability to go up for the ball to the Vikings' Randy Moss, and says Miami's rookie will be a dominating NFL receiver within two years.
So far, Chambers has given us no reason to disagree.