John Elway hurt all over, but it was a good pain. The Denver Broncos quarterback lay on a massage table last Thursday, two days before a rematch with the Miami Dolphins in an AFC divisional playoff at Mile High Stadium, and relived the 31-21 pounding he and his team had absorbed at the hands of the Dolphins on Dec. 21. While Steve the masseur tried to grind out the kinks, the 38-year-old Elway smiled blissfully and embraced the second chance. "It's going to be a little bit different this time," he promised. "This time they'll see everything we've got in our arsenal. Plus, we're pissed. It's funny how things work out: For us, the focus isn't so much that it's a playoff game as it is that Miami embarrassed us three weeks ago."
Even before the rubdown Elway was as relaxed as a quarterback could hope to be before facing the defense that gave up the fewest points in the NFL this season. He, his teammates and especially Broncos coach Mike Shanahan carried a quiet confidence that belied their lackluster performance late in the regular season. After winning their first 13 games and clinching home field advantage, the defending Super Bowl champions stumbled to the finish line with consecutive losses to the New York Giants and the Dolphins, followed by a ho-hum victory over the Seattle Seahawks. "We told ourselves we had to win those last three games," Elway said, "but no matter how hard you try to convince yourself, your subconscious will overrule."
Last Saturday the Broncos were unconscious in thrashing the Dolphins 38-3, ending all suspense by stringing together touchdown drives of 92, 66 and 87 yards on their first three possessions. In the process Shanahan unveiled an elaborate offensive smorgasbord that confused the Dolphins and undoubtedly complicated the workweek of New York Jets coach Bill Parcells, whose team travels to Mile High for next Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
When the Broncos' offensive players received their play sheets on the Tuesday before the rematch with Miami, they ogled a game plan that had nearly twice as many plays as the watered-down blueprint Shanahan had used for the regular-season meeting. Thanks to a brainstorm that he had while watching tape of Miami shutting down halfback Terrell Davis, who gained a season-low 29 yards on 16 carries, Shanahan added a wrinkle designed to jump-start the Denver running game: Trey Dolphin Right, a formation in which second-year tackle Matt Lepsis was inserted as an extra blocker between right tackle Harry Swayne and tight end Shannon Sharpe. The unbalanced line helped Denver seal off Miami All-Pro middle linebacker Zach Thomas and created ample running room for Davis, who was named the league's MVP before the game and then rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries in slightly more than three quarters of work.
" Mike Shanahan is a genius," Davis said afterward. "He has a knack for putting you in the best situations possible and really taking what the defense gives you. That formation opened up some wide holes for us, especially on the cutback."
Of course, creating cutback options for the sweet-stepping Davis is like generating talk-back opportunities for Jerry Springer, who schmoozed with several Broncos in the locker room after the game. At one point Springer drifted toward the Denver offensive linemen, and if you know anything about their personal quirks, that's exactly where he belongs. Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen is a serial vomiter, while left guard Mark (Stink) Schlereth frequently relieves himself in his uniform pants during games.
When it comes to the nasty work they do in the trenches, however, Denver's offensive linemen are all business. During their four-game run through the playoffs last season, the Broncos averaged 187 yards rushing. This season, despite the retirement of All-Pro left tackle Gary Zimmerman and the free-agent departure of right guard Brian Habib, the line has been just as dominant: Witness Davis's 2,000-yard season. Even after left tackle Tony Jones left Saturday's game with a twisted right knee midway through the second quarter, the Broncos hardly missed a beat. With Lepsis, a free-agent signee out of Colorado in '97, taking over at right tackle and Swayne shifting to the left side, the Broncos kept pounding a Dolphins front depleted by the absence of injured standouts Jason Taylor and Tim Bowens. All told, Denver ran for 250 yards, averaging a robust 6.6 yards per carry.
Elway and Co. toyed with the Dolphins. Holding a 14-3 second-quarter lead and facing fourth-and-one at the Miami 38, Shanahan spread the defense by putting Elway in the shotgun with an empty backfield. The quarterback rolled right and fired a 16-yard pass to wideout Rod Smith. On third-and-two in the third quarter Elway again lined up in the shotgun, watched his receivers scatter and sneaked around left end for 11 yards. "The Dolphins had never seen some of that stuff, and they were yelling at each other," Nalen said. "They didn't know what was going on."
Defensively, the Broncos this time were far more aggressive against Dan Marino, who had burned them for 355 passing yards and four touchdowns in the first meeting. Foiled in his quest to duplicate what Elway did last season—cap a record-setting career with a Super Bowl ring—Marino, 37, still has reason to be upbeat. The Dolphins will have plenty of cap money to spend this off-season in their quest to surround Marino with a more potent offensive cast, a process coach Jimmy Johnson seemed resigned to beginning even before the game. "We're like a walking MASH unit," Johnson complained after arriving at the Dolphins' hotel last Friday. "If we win, it will be amazing. But this off-season we'll go after it."
Barring a stunning development, there will be no next year for Elway, meaning Sunday's game against the Jets will be his Mile High goodbye. While refraining from an official announcement for fear of distracting his teammates, Elway, as he lay on the massage table last Thursday, sounded like a man with no plans to play next season. "My body is just so beaten down," he said, grimacing as the masseur worked on his neck. "If they could just make it flag football for me, maybe I'd give it a go."