The Denver hype has now reached Phase Two. Phase One was in late October, when the Broncos handled the Jaguars fairly easily, leading to all sorts of silly speculation that they just might have a chance to go undefeated. A long shot, everybody said at the time. Forget it.
Phase Two comes as a result of the lopsided wins the past two weeks over Kansas City and Oakland, which at one time appeared to be Denver's two most serious division foes but, in retrospect, don't seem very serious at all. This is the phase that calls for a careful look at the schedule, a rapid intake of breath and the observation, "My gosh, there's nothing between here and Miami in Game 15," the nothing being roadies against San Diego and the Giants, and a homer against K.C.
The game against the Dolphins—in Miami on Monday night, Dec. 21—will be Phase Three. All systems are go if the Broncos win it, because no one figures them to blow the finale, at home against Seattle. That attaches a certain amount of drama to this Sunday's game against the Chargers, if you agree with the coaches who say the games that scare them the most are the ones that everyone takes for granted. The problem with this theory is that the Broncos haven't shown signs of taking anyone lightly. They're always up, or maybe they're just so much better than everyone else that they create the illusion of being up. That's the mark of the truly gifted team.
During the Steelers' glory years, from 1972 through '79, do you know what their record was against teams that finished the season below .500? It was 50-1. They were bullies. So are the Broncos. And since this is a prediction column, I'll end the suspense and assign Denver victory number 12 against San Diego.
The 49ers are in prime time for the second straight week, this time in a Monday-nighter at home against the Giants. Honestly, I'm not trying to pad my record with puppies; I'm just trying to address a game lots of people will be watching, and I'm looking for ways New York can win. The Niners tried hard to carry the Saints for the first few rounds on Sunday night, turning the ball over three times in their first four possessions, but it was just a matter of time until the knockout came. The Giants' offense is nowhere to be found, but their defense still has some bite, and if the 49ers start off the same way.... O.K., who's kidding whom? The Niners will take it, and now we'll get into some action that's a little more difficult to predict.
The Oilers to beat the Seahawks in Seattle. I've been in Tennessee's corner all along because I still think the real Oilers are the ones that beat the Steelers twice in three weeks, not the guys who got so thoroughly handled, physically and strategically, by the Jets on Sunday. Vinny Testaverde picked apart the Tennessee defense underneath, but I don't think Jon Kitna, who's replacing the benched Warren Moon, will have the amount of time to throw that New York gave its man.
Arizona at K.C. is a head-scratcher. The total points scored in their games on Sunday was 162. The Chiefs were supposed to be carried by their defense, and the Cardinals were widely praised for building a feared front four. So where were those defenses on Sunday? Kansas City saw San Diego run up 21 fourth-quarter points to pull off an upset. Arizona built a big lead on Washington and then watched in horror as the Skins scored touchdowns on six consecutive possessions. The Cardinals still have playoff hopes; the Chiefs' are just about dead. The traditional Arrowhead fan noise might not be a factor because, after six straight losses, these people are so disillusioned that they just might root for the visitors. Still, the Chiefs have to get it together sometime, don't they? And this will be that moment. I'll go with K.C.
Tampa Bay, another drowning swimmer, over the Bears in Chicago, only because of the Bears' unsettled quarterback situation. I'm figuring the Patriots for a letdown after the Miami Monday-nighter, so I'm going with Buffalo in an upset. Is the Bills' ground game for real? I think so.
Finally, and don't laugh, Carolina will give the Jets a battle for a while before fading. The formula simply won't change for the Jets—they beat the teams they're supposed to lose to and, much to Bill Parcells's chagrin, lose to the ones they should beat. I think the pattern will change here. Look for the Jets to go to 8-4.