What poured out of the Denver Broncos after their dream of an undefeated season was shattered at Giants Stadium on Sunday was not anger or regret but a sense of relief. Upon leaving the Broncos' locker room, John Elway stopped for a chat with New York Giants coach Jim Fassel and then high-fived a few fans before boarding the team bus. Wideout Ed McCaffrey, a former Giant, grieved over Denver's first loss in 19 games by hanging out with some old friends inside the New York locker room, while on the field running back Terrell Davis signed autographs and posed for pictures with some peewee football players.
Despite the shocking 20-16 loss to the Giants, the Broncos' postgame demeanor seemed to suggest, Oh, well, what the heck, nobody's perfect. "I'm happy as hell that's off my back," said defensive tackle Keith Traylor. "It was wearing me down. I was tired of hearing about it. Everywhere I went, people would ask, 'You guys going undefeated?' And I always told them, 'I don't know. I just want to win the Super Bowl.' " Added defensive end Neil Smith, "It was a burden. And the burden was heavy."
Finally, this from tight end Shannon Sharpe: "More and more as the games piled up, we noticed that people weren't just trying to beat the world champs. They were also trying to end the streak. Give me 18-1, that's what I want. Because they don't give out rings or Lombardi trophies to people who go 16-0 in the regular season."
In fact, only Denver coach Mike Shanahan seemed to grasp what the 6-8 Giants had stolen from the Broncos. Yes, Denver has already clinched the AFC West title along with home field advantage throughout the playoffs, but the Broncos missed a chance to carve out a piece of history for themselves. Instead of owning the league record for consecutive wins, Denver, which had last lost on Dec. 15, 1997, now shares the mark of 18 with four other teams. Moreover, the Broncos' bid to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only team to go through a season undefeated is finished. "[The unbeaten season] was something special this team was shooting for," said Shanahan. "Obviously, now that's out the window."
Under Shanahan, a win earns players both Monday and Tuesday off along with a light Friday practice. This week it's back to a full workload for the Broncos, who are 6-7 in December during Shanahan's four-year watch. Judging by the way Denver has played in its last two games, against the Kansas City Chiefs and the Giants, that might not be such a bad thing. In those games the Broncos turned the ball over four times and led for a grand total of 21 minutes. In its first 12 games combined, Denver trailed for only 29 minutes.
"Maybe now we can look through the clutter and figure out what our goal was at the beginning of the season," said Elway. "The bottom line is we want to win a world championship. Going undefeated was just icing on the cake. Have we lost the chance to do something special? Jeez, I think winning a Super Bowl is still pretty special."
What remains to be seen, however, is how drained Denver is from its quest for perfection. Will the Broncos regroup as they did last season, when after losing three of their last six games, they stormed back to win the Super Bowl as a wild card? Or, with nothing to play for in the regular season, will they repeat their meltdown of 1996, when they coasted through the final weeks, only to be shocked at home in a divisional playoff game by the Jacksonville Jaguars?
Going into Sunday's game, the Giants hadn't beaten a team with a winning record. Denver, as it did in late-season losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, seemed to lose its focus and abandon its physical style—particularly on defense. Breaking four-tackles along the way, New York's Gary Brown ripped off a 45-yard run early in the fourth quarter. An offside penalty on cornerback Ray Crockett kept that drive alive by nullifying an apparent goal line fumble recovery by the Broncos. The Giants eventually kicked a field goal that extended their lead to 13-9. On the game-winning drive, New York, which entered the game with the NFL's 29th-ranked offense, marched 86 yards in six plays, the capper coming on a 37-yard pass from Kent Graham to wideout Amani Toomer with 48 seconds left. If Graham, a journeyman with a 65.4 quarterback rating this year, can do that much damage to Denver's pass defense in 61 seconds, imagine what the Minnesota Vikings' Randall Cunningham might do over the course of a game.
"We are definitely not playing as well as we were earlier in the year," said Elway, who completed 19 of 36 passes for 180 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns. "That's something we can take care of—and we have to. You win that many games, and you start to think there's no way you can lose. We have some work to do if we want to hit the playoffs running."
First the Broncos must travel to Miami for a Monday-night game with the Dolphins before facing the Seattle Seahawks at home in the regular-season finale. Expect those teams and future playoff opponents to steal a few things from the Giants' game plan, which was to shut off many of Davis's running lanes and disrupt Elway's rhythm by applying constant pressure up the middle. Although weakened by a stomach virus that left him vomiting most of Saturday night and too weak to carry his bags on Sunday morning, Davis still ran for 147 yards and scored Denver's only touchdown.