I'm glad they're rounding up as many of the players from the unbeaten 1972 Dolphins as they can to give the team support next week when it tries to keep the Broncos from duplicating their feat. There's only one problem: What if the Broncos aren't unbeaten going into that Dec. 21 Monday-nighter? Everyone assumed that Denver would have no problem with Kansas City on Sunday. Ditto the Giants this week. I'll bet there were some nervous ABC execs when the Chiefs opened a 21-7 lead and when they led by 10 in the fourth quarter.
Can the Giants beat Miami to the punch by one week and muddy Denver's clean slate? Let's take a look.
Against the Chiefs, the Broncos spent half the time trying to win, half the time trying to lose. Their first three series were three-and-out, as K.C. built a 14-0 lead. Denver punter Tom Rouen fumbled a snap. John Elway was intercepted in the end zone. Denver had a field goal blocked. After 836 clean touches, Terrell Davis saved his first fumble since November 1996 for the goal line. That's the bad part. The good part? Elway was as good as he's ever been on his throws and reads, and the coaching staff was sharp, as usual, in countering the opponent's adjustments. The Chiefs assigned their best cover man, cornerback James Hasty, to tight end Shannon Sharpe, whom they read as Denver's most serious threat, so Elway killed them with his wideouts, Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. When it was crunch time and the Broncos had third-and-one at the K.C. 24 and the Chiefs had bunched up to stop the inevitable Davis run, Elway put his team on top with a touchdown pass to Sharpe, who was being covered by the safeties, whom he feeds off.
Same old efficient machine, except that Denver took awhile to get it cranked up this time. And remember that the Chiefs played hard for the whole game, which they didn't do in their 30-7 loss to the Broncos at Arrowhead last month.
What do the Giants have going for them? The Meadowlands. The winds there can get severe in December. The Giants can put up a pretty decent defense when aroused. The question is, Will they be? Why not? There's the chance to make headlines, and (dare I say this?) at 5-8 they still have a playoff shot. O.K., I'll end the suspense. Denver's the pick, but I don't see Elway putting up the big numbers he did against K.C.
How, you say, did I ever figure out that the Giants are in the playoff picture? Easy. Only five NFC teams have a winning record, and since there are six playoff spots, one of the current 6-7 teams, or heaven forbid one of the 5-8s, will be there like ants at a picnic.
Let's quickly go through that rather grim roster: New Orleans (6-7) hosts Atlanta in a trend game. The Saints haven't allowed a touchdown in the last 13 quarters at the Superdome, but the Falcons have won the last seven meetings between the two teams. I like Atlanta. Arizona, another 6-7 hopeful, visits Philadelphia. Even with another defeat the Cardinals will be in the playoff hunt. Arizona's defensive line is hurting, but Philly has been hurting all year. Let's give the Cardinals a win. Detroit (5-8) will lose at San Francisco in the Monday-nighter, but bear this in mind: Carolina, which came into Sunday's play as the league's worst rushing team (72.2 yards a game) ran for 203 yards on a Niners defense minus defensive tackle Bryant Young, who's out for the season. Now the 49ers face Barry Sanders. Tampa Bay over Pittsburgh, which regressed offensively and defensively in a loss to the Patriots.
Let's move to the most interesting matchup on the board, the Jets at Miami, probably for the AFC East title. After the Dolphins picked off six passes against Oakland, the Raiders said that Miami defenders had a pretty good read on everything that was coming. I don't see that happening against a Jets attack that is good at changing on the go. Ditto the New York defense. Here's why I think the Jets will win: Defensive mastermind Bill Belichick's quick striking forces will be too much for a Dolphins offense that's minus three starters on the line.
Oakland at Buffalo is a who-wants-it-more game. I say the Bills do. The same goes for Dallas at Kansas City. I can't see the Cowboys beating any decent team with their secondary in such a shambles. K.C.'s the pick, unless Deion returns. Finally, there's a weird angle to Washington at Carolina. If the 4-9 Redskins win, they'll drop in the draft order with their own first-round choice, but they'll also improve their chances of getting the second pick on the board. That's because, as a result of trading Sean Gilbert to Carolina last April, Washington also owns the first-round pick of the 2-11 Panthers. I like the Redskins.