The Winning Edge
Two good defenses cancel each other out, but Terrell Davis will put Denver over the top
By Paul Zimmerman
Cinderella wears an NFC slipper. How times have changed. For 13 years the Super Bowl was the NFC's personal playground, but the Broncos ended all that last season. Now they're back in the big one, ready to defend their title against a Falcons team picked in the preseason by absolutely no one to get within sniffing distance of the title game.
Now the Falcons are one-touchdown underdogs to the Broncos in a matchup in which emotions run deep. When he was the coach in Denver, Reeves fired offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, who is now the Denver coach. A year later John Elway helped owner Pat Bowlen reach his decision not to renew Reeves's contract. You won't be getting much of this bitterness in the pre-Super Bowl quotes, but rest assured, these people have long memories.
Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, one of the handful of Broncos players who were around in the Reeves era, apparently doesn't share that bitterness. "I watched some of the Falcons-Vikings game," he said on Sunday night, "and I wanted Atlanta to win. I was pulling for Dan. He gave me an opportunity early in my career. If not for him, I wouldn't be talking to you in this locker room right now.
"The Falcons will be coming in with a lot of confidence. Just look at what they accomplished. They went into a stadium and came from behind to beat a team that had lost only one game all season. Now they'll be going to Miami, a neutral field, 25,000 of our fans, 25,000 of theirs, and 25,000 who are drunk and don't care. But here's what we've got going for us -- Mike Shanahan, probably the best offensive coach in football. Give him two weeks to prepare for somebody, and I'll take my chances."
Here's another thing the Broncos have going for them: a defense that shuts down the run when the stakes are high. The Jets threw a real scare into Denver. Vinny Testaverde completed his first 13 passes, throwing in a 20- to 30-mph wind that was causing Elway's throws to nosedive on him. Sure, six turnovers cost New York, but the thing that really did the Jets in was their inability to run the ball -- the same thing that crippled the Dolphins eight days earlier in a divisional playoff loss to the Broncos. The rushing stats of New York and Miami were identical: 13 carries for 14 yards. In its last four games the Denver defense allowed a total of 88 yards on the ground and a 1.3-yard average. "We don't have a bunch of big-name guys on our front four," 300-pound tackle Keith Traylor says, "but we're very sound. Each week we've gotten better."
Atlanta likes to hammer away with 234-pound Jamal Anderson, the NFL's second-leading rusher, behind Denver's Terrell Davis, but on Sunday the Falcons set up the Vikings with the pass, then came back with Anderson. That's what I think they'll do against the Broncos. "Short passes, off a quick drop to start with, that's Dan Reeves football," says Traylor, who began his NFL career under Reeves. "Don't give the [pass] rush a chance to get going, throw the out patterns to your wideouts, dump it off to a back, mix in a run or two, pick your chances to go deep -- then go."
Denver's defense has been overshadowed by the high-powered Elway-Davis-Sharpe attack. But let's face it, there are no great defenses this season. The most you can say about the better ones is that they're functional and well coordinated and, in the Broncos' case, don't make many mistakes.
At 32, strongside linebacker Bill Romanowski, named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years, is enjoying his finest season. He stays on the field in all schemes. He runs the show. "I'm faster now and stronger, and I haven't been injured," he says. "After 11 years in the game you learn how to study an offense. You learn the angles."
The Broncos don't blitz a lot, but they'll take their shots, usually lining up in a three-man rush and bringing as many as four extra people. Such a strategy will be risky against Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler. He'll stay in the pocket and find his hot reads, and he isn't afraid to go downtown to wideouts Terance Mathis or Tony Martin, provided, of course, the blitzers are picked up.
The Atlanta defense is a different story. The Falcons don't blitz much; on passing downs they rely on their four linemen to apply the pressure, gradually wearing down the opposition as they did against the Vikings. "The best front seven in football that nobody's ever heard of," Sharpe says. "Look what they did [against Minnesota]. They beat the most prolific scoring offense in history. Their secondary's O.K., not great, but I'll always take a great front seven and an O.K. secondary over the other way around."
The front four -- Lester Archambeau and Chuck Smith outside, Travis Hall and former Bronco Shane Dronett at the tackles -- are indeed relentless. The Falcons were second in the NFL against the run this season, but they've never faced a back like Davis, who killed the Jets with his cutbacks, just as he'd done to the Dolphins a week earlier. It'll be one of the most interesting matchups in the Super Bowl: the Falcons' front four, possibly the best in the game, against the quickest, most mobile offensive line, clearing the way for the league MVP and a future Hall of Fame runner. Everybody knows the rules when playing against Davis: Guard your lanes, don't overpursue. But when fatigue starts to set in, he finds the creases.
Cornerback Ray Buchanan, Atlanta's best cover man, will probably draw Denver's deep threat, Rod Smith, leaving the other corner, Michael Booker or Ronnie Bradford (coming back from a shoulder injury), on the possession wideout, Ed McCaffrey. Sharpe? He could be the property of Cornelius Bennett, the Falcons' best and swiftest cover linebacker, in some sort of combination coverage with Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson.
"Uh-uh, don't think so," Sharpe says. "Teams usually put a cornerback on me."
So whom does that leave on McCaffrey?
"That's where it gets interesting," Sharpe says. "That's why we play the game."
Finally, there's Elway. He completed only 13 passes in 34 attempts on Sunday but made just enough big plays to send the Denver faithful home happy. In last season's Super Bowl win over the Packers, he was almost an afterthought, throwing for just 123 yards, as Davis stole the show with 157 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Does Elway have one more 300-yard outing in him?
The feeling here is that he won't need it. I see a slugfest, not as high scoring as some expect, with Chandler hitting the occasional big ones but Davis controlling the tempo. Final score: Broncos 24, Falcons 17.
Issue date: January 25, 1999
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