The Broncos' defense, ranked fourth in the league coming into Sunday's game, held New England to 17 yards rushing. A week earlier the Denver D had done something that the Broncos usually leave up to Elway: It won a game in the last minute, stoning the Chicago Bears on four consecutive goal line plays to preserve a 17-12 victory. Contributing tackles in that series were defensive end Alfred Williams and strongside linebacker Bill Romanowski, both of whom signed with Denver as free agents in the off-season, and both of whom have played huge roles in the Broncos' success in 1996.
Williams, a natural comedian who takes his fellow defensive linemen bowling every Thursday night—"With a name like Al, you think I don't know how to bowl?" he says—provides laughter and sacks (11 this season, tying him for the NFL lead). Romanowski, who leads Denver with 97 tackles and who has never missed a game in nine seasons as a pro, provides durability, leadership and candor. "How about Bledsoe today?" he remarked on his way to the team bus after Sunday's game. "He was pretty terrible."
As good as Elway has been against the Patriots—he has not lost to them in nine meetings—New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe hasn't played well on the two occasions he has lined up against the Broncos. Last Friday, Bledsoe and the other members of the Patriots offense sequestered themselves in a room in Foxboro Stadium to screen a horror video: a montage of lowlights from last season's 37-3 loss to Denver. Little did they know that they were also viewing a prequel.
As the tape from last October's game showed Bledsoe overthrowing receivers, spraying the ball hither and yon, tackle Bruce Armstrong leaned over to the fourth-year quarterback and said, "I don't know that guy who's wearing number 11, but I'm glad he's not playing here anymore."
They shared a laugh, and why not? After struggling through the 1995 season, in which he had more interceptions (16) than touchdown passes (13), Bledsoe had returned to the form that marked him in '94 as the NFL's most promising Generation X quarterback. Going into Sunday's game he had thrown 18 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions; his confidence and mechanics, absent for long stretches in '95, had returned.
Against the Broncos, however, Bledsoe became that number 11 from the video. With New England already trailing 7-0, his third pass of the day was picked off by strong safety Steve Atwater and returned 11 yards to the Patriots' 42. It was a bad throw and led, five plays later, to Denver's second TD: Davis took a pitch from Elway at the 10, cut back behind a wall of white jerseys and strolled into the end zone.
What the Pats had begun to suspect—that they were in for a long afternoon—was confirmed early in the second quarter when Davis muffed a handoff from Elway at the New England two-yard line. The ball jounced directly up to Davis, who never broke stride and lunged into the end zone. "It was a crossover dribble," he joked afterward. "I was looking for someone spotted up in the corner, but I couldn't find anyone, so I had to drive to the basket."
Davis's touchdown made it 21-0 and, with five weekends left in the regular season, virtually clinched the Broncos' first playoff appearance since 1993. But after Sunday's game it became clear that Denver had been playing for something more compelling than home field advantage. Call it reject. After the game, Elway evinced amazement that despite its inferior record, New England had been made a 2½-point favorite by odds-makers at game time. "To be 9-1 and come in here as an underdog," he said. "That's just...." Noticing a TV camera, he wisely held his tongue.
In the back of the visitors' dressing room, the offensive linemen maintained their vigil of silence—for the most part. Asked to talk about Davis, one of them briefly forgot himself. "We did all right today, but Terrell did a great job," he said. "He found the holes, and when there was nothing available, he cut back on the front side. He's a great back and the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet. We're very fortunate to have him. Hey! Don't write that down. This is off the record."