Cinderella wears an NFC slipper. How times have changed. For 13 years the Super Bowl was the NFC's personal playground, but the Broncos ended all that last season. Now they're back in the big one, ready to defend their title against a Falcons team picked in the preseason by absolutely no one to get within sniffing distance of the title game.
Even after they'd run up the best regular-season record in their history (14-2) and put away the 49ers in an NFC divisional playoff, Dan Reeves's Falcons weren't given much of a chance against the Vikings, the top scoring machine of all time. It was going to be Denver-Minnesota in a shootout, an orgy of points, probably the most in Super Bowl history. Gritty, resilient Atlanta ruined all that, clawing its way back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter, driving the length of the field in overtime behind a quarterback limping on a sore knee.
Now the Falcons are one-touchdown underdogs to the Broncos in a matchup in which emotions run deep. When he was the coach in Denver, Reeves fired offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, who is now the Denver coach. A year later John Elway helped owner Pat Bowlen reach his decision not to renew Reeves's contract. You won't be getting much of this bitterness in the pre-Super Bowl quotes, but rest assured, these people have long memories.
Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, one of the handful of Broncos players who were around in the Reeves era, apparently doesn't share that bitterness. "I watched some of the Falcons-Vikings game," he said on Sunday night, "and I wanted Atlanta to win. I was pulling for Dan. He gave me an opportunity early in my career. If not for him, I wouldn't be talking to you in this locker room right now.
"The Falcons will be coming in with a lot of confidence. Just look at what they accomplished. They went into a stadium and came from behind to beat a team that had lost only one game all season. Now they'll be going to Miami, a neutral field, 25,000 of our fans, 25,000 of theirs, and 25,000 who are drunk and don't care. But here's what we've got going for us—Mike Shanahan, probably the best offensive coach in football. Give him two weeks to prepare for somebody, and I'll take my chances."
Here's another thing the Broncos have going for them: a defense that shuts down the run when the stakes are high. The Jets threw a real scare into Denver. Vinny Testaverde completed his first 13 passes, throwing in a 20-to 30-mph wind that was causing Elway's throws to nosedive on him. Sure, six turnovers cost New York, hut the thing that really did the Jets in was their inability to run the ball—the same thing that crippled the Dolphins eight days earlier in a divisional playoff loss to the Broncos. The rushing stats of New York and Miami were identical: 13 carries for 14 yards. In its last four games the Denver defense allowed a total of 88 yards on the ground and a 1.3-yard average. "We don't have a bunch of big-name guys on our front four," 300-pound tackle Keith Traylor says, "but we're very sound. Each week we've gotten better."
Atlanta likes to hammer away with 234-pound Jamal Anderson, the NFL's second-leading rusher, behind Denver's Terrell Davis, but on Sunday the Falcons set up the Vikings with the pass, then came back with Anderson. That's what I think they'll do against the Broncos. "Short passes, off a quick drop to start with, that's Dan Reeves football," says Traylor, who began his NFL career under Reeves. "Don't give the [pass] rush a chance to get going, throw the out patterns to your wideouts, dump it off to a back, mix in a run or two, pick your chances to go deep—then go."
Denver's defense has been overshadowed by the high-powered Elway-Davis-Sharpe attack. But let's face it, there are no great defenses this season. The most you can say about the better ones is that they're functional and well coordinated and, in the Broncos' case, don't make many mistakes.
At 32, strongside linebacker Bill Romanowski, named to the Pro Bowl for the second time in three years, is enjoying his finest season. He stays on the field in all schemes. He runs the show. "I'm faster now and stronger, and I haven't been injured," he says. "After 11 years in the game you learn how to study an offense. You learn the angles."
The Broncos don't blitz a lot, but they'll take their shots, usually lining up in a three-man rush and bringing as many as four extra people. Such a strategy will be risky against Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler. He'll stay in the pocket and find his hot reads, and he isn't afraid to go downtown to wideouts Terance Mathis or Tony Martin, provided, of course, the blitzers are picked up.