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Broncos stand alone
Posted: Monday November 02, 1998 11:21 AM
CINCINNATITwelve minutes to go. Twelve minutes to go, perhaps, in the NFL's last perfect season this year, and if the Denver Broncos could just think in the bedlam of Cinergy Field late Sunday afternoon, with the western sun blinding their sideline and the Gary Glitter "Hey" song blasting through the stadium and the 59,000 screaming like Boomer and Munoz were killing the Steelers.
All I could think of, as the Denver Broncos' offense trotted onto the field trailing 18-13, was what coach Mike Shanahan told me Saturday night in his hotel suite. "What worries me," he said, "is this team we're playing got embarrassed the last two weeks, first at Tennessee, then at Oakland. They're coming home. Their entire motivation will be to show that they're not the team they've been the last two weeks, especially at home, against the Super Bowl champions. I just hope our guys realize that."
And so after 48 minutes, down five, the Broncos could either play like champions now, and find a way to beat back these inspired kids from Cincinnati, many of whom were in elementary school when John Elway threw his first NFL ball. Or they could give up the undefeated dream.
To deflate the crowd, the Broncos did what any smart team would do: ride the legs of Terrell Davis. Eight runs, 49 yards, ending with a two-yard score. "If I didn't run Davis in the fourth quarter," Shanahan said later, "I'd fire myself." Davis got stuffed on the two-point conversion attempt. Denver 19, Cincinnati 18.
Then the Bengals stalled. Fourth and nine at their own 30, and Shanahan pulled a hunch. "We'd seen some things on their punt team we thought we could work on," he said after the game. Specifically, a weakness at left tackle and left wing. All-purpose back Vaughn Hebron knifed in and got a hand on the ball. The whole place thought that Elway, nursing a one-point lead at the Bengals 25, would milk the clock by running Davis left, Davis middle, Davis right and Davis to the concession stand. Nope, Elway rolled right, found Ed McCaffrey (a really, really good player, I might add) and hit him lying in the end zone, practically alone, with 5:04 left. Denver 26, Cincinnati 18.
The crowd wasn't so frisky now, until Bengals QB Neil O'Donnell converted a third and 10, then a third and nine. Mania, again. By now I was standing in the end zone, down from the press box, awaiting the end of the game, and I was 15 feet from tight end Marco Battaglia making a one-handed catch in the right corner of the end zone. The Bengals went for two. Carl Pickens is singled (Singled?! Broncos, what are you doing singling this box-out artist when everybody in the place knows the ball's going to him?) and subtly pushed off and boxed out against Broncos corner Ray Crockett and grabbed the rebound, Rodmanlike, for the conversion. Denver 26, Cincinnati 26.
Bedlam again, and on the Denver sideline, Shannon Sharpe beseeched his mates: "We need this! We need two or three of these games a year! Let's win it! Show 'em what we got!" Hebron returned the kickoff to the Denver 47, and McCaffrey did it again. With the Bengals cheating toward Davis, he found a seam inside the left sideline, at the Bengal 23, and Elway lasered it to him. First down, two-minute warning, Denver at the Cincinnati 23. As owner Pat Bowlen paced on the sideline in front of me and CBS sideline reporter Armen Keteyian , I got Bowlen's attention and pointed to the scoreboard. It read: "BUCS 27 VIKINGS 24 F." He muttered, "One more," whatever that meant, and Keteyian said into my ear: "The great teams find a way to win, don't they?" Four plays later, this one did. Davis scraped the left goal-line pylon, barely getting in. Denver 33, Cincinnati 26.
On the Broncos sideline, euphoria reigned. Offensive line coach Alex Gibbs kept screaming to the offensive guys filtering back to the sideline: "You guys are tough! This is real football, isn't it!"
Walking off the field afterward, I found Shanahan. "You were right," I said. "The Bengals played."
Shanahan exhaled; I could hear it over the music and the crowd noise. "This is exactly what you've got to do in the NFL," he said. "Win close ones on the road. This is good for us."
Right behind him, guard Mark Schlereth told me: "We need a few of these. We were hearing too much of the invincible stuff."
In the locker room, one player told another that Minnesota lost. "It puts us back where we belong," safety Tyrone Braxton said. "Back on top. By ourselves."
On Wednesday, when Shanahan addressed the team for the first time of the week, he told the players: "You guys have the ability to be the best team that ever played. It's up to you. And it's games like this where you have to rise to the occasion and win."
With big and small players making big plays, Denver rose. Maybe their corners get them beat, or maybe they don't have the outside pass-rush some Sunday to get them to 16-0. I don't expect them to get to 16-0. But I also don't expect any team to beat them when it counts, Jan. 31 in the Super Bowl.
Now for this week's awards:
Offensive Player of the Week: Green Bay WR Antonio Freeman. Seven catches, 193 yards, two long touchdowns from Brett Favre. Freeman can't be happy that the Packers signed tight end Mark Chmura to a five-year deal on Friday. This move effectively takes Freeman off the 1999 open market, because now Green Bay can use its franchise designation on the would-be free agent. The difference for Freeman? He'll be a $4.5 million-a-year player with the Packers instead of a $7 million man in Cleveland. But if he was thinking angry thoughts Sunday, he didn't show them. He was a gem.
Defensive Players of the Week: The Green Bay defensive lineends Vonnie Holliday, Reggie White and Vaughn Booker, and tackles Gilbert Brown and Santana Dotson. Never in my life have I seen Steve Young get drilled into the ground as this group drilled him Sunday, particularly in the fourth quarter. On a series with six minutes left and the Packers up 36-22, Holliday leveled Young on first down for a sack. Booker trapped him on second down for another. And on a sack that NFL Films ought to play the day White gets enshrined in Canton in 2038 (five years after his retirement), White tossed San Francisco right tackle Derrick Deese over like a Beanie Baby and crushed Young.
Coach of the Week: Oakland defensive coordinator Willie Shaw . Before the season, I heard so many NFL brains talk about what a crummy scheme Shaw runs, a quick, sprint-upfield-at-all-costs concept that's supposed to be susceptible to the run. But Shaw has engineered an incredible worst-to-first feat. The Raiders were 30th in NFL team defense last year. They're first now. They sacked Warren Moon twice Sunday at the Kingdome, intercepted him once and forced six fumbles. Boy, your scheme stinks, Willie.
Astronaut of the Week: John Glenn . Last Thursday, I'm at the Dolphins' training facility, 200 miles south of the Space Shuttle launch. And a minute after the launch, people scurried outside and clapped and looked over head. There, in the blue northern sky, was a long plume of white vapor, turning right toward the Atlantic Ocean. News flash: Jimmy Johnson did not stop practice to watch.
Special Teams Player of the Week: Denver's Hebron. See above.
Now for the Ten Things I Think I Think this week:
1. I think The Month of Doug Flutie might be the best individual story to hit the NFL since George Blanda 's magic-carpet ride in 1970. Argue with me. What is better than the man the NFL threw away eight years ago coming backgraying but still bushy-tailedand beating Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Carolina and Miami, and piloting the Bills to a first-place tie at 5-3 after starting 0-3, and single-handedly pulling western New York out of its anti-Bills hangover of the past four years?
2. I think if the Chiefs don't get something going on offense they'll be watching the Raiders or the Bills or the Jets on wild card weekend.
3. I think after Favre threw his second touchdown pass to Freeman, he unleashed all the pent-up anger he had at the world for questioning (the world was right to do so, I might add) why he had been throwing so many interceptions. I read his lips. What he said to the crowd and to the press box and to the sky was something like: "Hey, ladies and fellows, I heartily disagree with your assessment of my play in recent weeks. I respectfully submit that I am playing this sport quite well, actually."
4. I think my brethren on the Hall of Fame committee should read the rules of the selection process. They say nothing about making what a man does off the field a part of the voting process. Last week, NFL writer Paul Needell of The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J., in a terrific piece of enterprise reporting, contacted 35 of the 36 voters to ask them about the candidacy of Lawrence Taylor , who'd just entered drug rehab and has had a string of problems since he left the field in 1993. Needell's straw vote went like this: 20 would definitely vote Taylor in, 10 were undecided, and five would vote no. The five no voters clearly were anti-Taylor because of his delinquent lifestyle and drug use. This just isn't right. I side with my fellow Hall voter and Buffalo News columnist Larry Felser , who told Needell: "If you don't put him in the Hall of Fame, then what the hell's a Hall of Fame for? If he has to have the warden come collect the bust for him, so be it."
5. I think I swayed one of the undecideds to the yes side Sunday in the Cinergy press boxCincinnati Enquirer football writer Geoff Hobson . Not that I'm fond of Taylor. I'm not. But the issue has nothing to do with personality or drugs. The issue is what a guy did on the field. Taylor did enough for two men.
6. I think Barry Sanders must be sad today. It has to be sinking in, after Arizona beat him at home Sunday and dropped his Lions to 2-6, that he'll never play in a Super Bowl.
7. I think every time I see Ed McCaffrey I wonder: How could the Giants have let this guy go? How could anyone let him go? He's one of the best receivers in the league. He catches every ballthe deep posts, the slants where he knows he'll get creamed, the diving ones. He runs past corners. Someone asked Shanahan Sunday if he thought McCaffrey stepped up big in Cincinnati, with his 7-133 performance. Shanahan looked quizzically at the questioner. "Ed steps up big every time he plays a game," he said.
8. I think Flutie got Jimmy Johnson back pretty good Sunday. A month ago, Johnson was asked if he'd faced Flutie since the Hail May pass Flutie threw for Boston College in 1984 to beat Johnson's Miami team. "No," Johnson said. "I never coached in the CFL." Flutie took this as a slap in the face, of course, because it was. And Sunday, Flutie made enough plays to level the Dolphins, and he just loved the way the game ended, with the Dolphins unable to get off one more play at the Buffalo 4 as time expired. "That was almost poetic justice for Jimmy Johnson at the end there, huh?" Flutie said.
9. I think Zach Thomas gets all the attention that smallish but brutally tough plugger linebackers receive, and he deserved it again with a 15-tackle Sunday in Buffalo. But Stephen Boyd, the 6-foot, 247-pounder in Detroit, plays just like Thomas and gets none of the attention. He had nine tackles and a sack Sunday.
10. I think Steve Young is very sore today.
Now for my top 10 :
1. Denver Broncos (8-0)
2. Minnesota Vikings (7-1)
3. Green Bay Packers (6-2)
4. San Francisco 49ers (6-2)
5. Jacksonville Jaguars (6-2)
6. New England Patriots (5-3)
7. Miami Dolphins (5-3)
8. Atlanta Falcons (6-2)
9. New York Jets (5-3)
T10. Oakland Raiders (6-2)
T10. Buffalo Bills (5-3)
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