He will be accused of foolhardiness, of sending his team the wrong message. Certainly New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells was guilty of that. A fake punt on your first possession, when your team has the ball on its 32-yard line and the other team has John Elway at quarterback? Men, we have no chance today unless we try some tricks.
This minor deception, the fake punt that failed, revealed a major one. Sunday's game between the Patriots and the Denver Broncos in Foxboro, Mass., was billed as a collision of Super Bowl hopefuls. The Broncos came in 9-1 and were looking to take another step toward locking up home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. The Patriots, having won six of their last seven to get to 7-3, were eager to measure themselves against a quality opponent. In the days leading up to the game, Parcells—who coached the New York Giants to Super Bowl wins in the 1986 and '90 seasons—had titillated New England fans by intimating that the Pats were capable of winning an NFL championship. But after Denver dished out a 34-8 comeuppance, the question was not so much whether New England could win the Super Bowl as whether it would reach the playoffs. "If we play defense like we did today," disgusted Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest said after the game, "we will never win another game. We will be home by Christmas. I am embarrassed."
You would be too, if your opponent had amassed 422 yards of offense and you had spent the afternoon being dominated by a one-armed man. Despite nursing an injured right shoulder that threatened to snap his consecutive-game streak at 166, Broncos left tackle Gary Zimmerman manhandled McGinest. Asked if he had required a painkilling injection during the game, Zimmerman politely replied, "No comment."
That economical brush-off has become the watchword of Denver's dynamite offensive line. At the suggestion of their position coach, Alex Gibbs, these thick-set gentlemen have opted not to talk to the media, even as they reserve the right to complain if they feel they are not being accorded sufficient credit.
Slim chance of that after the way the Broncos' offensive line dominated on Sunday, clearing a path for second-year tailback Terrell Davis. He rushed 32 times for 154 yards, caught four passes for 56 more, scored three touchdowns and refused on most occasions when he touched the ball to be brought down by fewer than four tacklers. While Davis attributed his big day to the Denver hogs, the Pats also took some credit. "How hard is it to tackle?" said New England linebacker Chris Slade. "We learned how to tackle in peewee league, and that's how we tackled today—like we were playing peewee."
Parcells said that New England's tackling "stunk," but then his fourth-and-one call on the Patriots' opening possession was malodorous as well. New England punter Tom Tupa, a former Ohio State quarterback, lofted a perfect pass into the hands of Pats linebacker turned receiver Tedy Bruschi near the New England 45. But the ball was immediately swatted away by Denver rookie cornerback Tory James. Five plays later Elway connected with Davis on a 15-yard touchdown pass, muzzling Foxboro Stadium's boisterous and well-lubricated denizens. "I love New England in the fall—it was a beautiful day," Davis said after the game. "The stadium isn't particularly loud. I mean, you can hear the fans, but it's not like Oakland or Kansas City. This was something we could handle."
Since joining the Broncos as a sixth-round draft pick in 1995, Davis has awed his teammates with his lack of awe and his ability, in the wake of his success (he has rushed for more than 2,300 yards in 25 career games), to keep both feet on the ground. Even though he signed a five-year, $6.8 million contract following his rookie season, he has not purchased a new car—"Guys on the team keep asking me, 'Where's your Benz?' " he says—choosing instead to drive the Ford Bronco he bought as a rookie. While denying that he is excessively frugal, Davis admits that he still uses underwear he owned as a freshman at Long Beach State. "Hey," he says, "it's still in good condition."
Even though he was the 21st running back taken in the 1995 draft, Davis arrived in Denver with a quiet confidence that he would start—and star. He learned a complex offense and sailed up the depth chart. Everything came easily to him. Everything but staying awake. On three occasions last season he was admonished by coaches for falling asleep in meetings. "And those were just the times they caught me," says Davis. Once, he was awakened by coach Mike Shanahan, who screamed, "Pay attention!" and fined him.
Shanahan doesn't scream at Davis much anymore. After Sunday's game, when the subject of Davis's maturity came up, Shanahan said, "He's a levelheaded guy. He's been there." A second-year player? "Well," said Shanahan, "he acts like he's been there."
Shanahan was knotting his tie in the coaches' dressing room when Elway walked by. "Great job today, John," Shanahan said. In truth Elway had been, by Elway standards, merely solid: 14-of-23 passing for 175 yards, one touchdown, one interception. Just because he's famous for engineering dramatic victories doesn't mean Elway doesn't prefer the games, like Sunday's, that are wrapped up by halftime. "What's the best way to win a Super Bowl—not just get there but win it?" Elway had asked the day before. He answered his own question. "You've got to be balanced on offense, and you've got to play good defense. That's why our team's exciting, because we're doing both right now."