SI Vault
Paul Zimmerman
December 18, 1989
Even in defeat, the Broncos showed why they're the AFC's best hope for the Super Bowl
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December 18, 1989

Wimps They Aren't

Even in defeat, the Broncos showed why they're the AFC's best hope for the Super Bowl

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The Giants were sitting on their lead and taking care to avoid turnovers, which had done them in in their two previous games. In the third quarter, Giants inside linebacker Gary Reasons came up with two big stops on the one-yard line. The Broncos reached the Giants' 15 late in the fourth quarter and ran out of downs; a little over a minute and a half later Denver reached the New York 34 and ran out of clock.

Domination? Well, not in the second half. The Broncos lost the battle but they shed an image in the process. They are wimps no longer. They can play physical football with anyone, and Elway can still bring them down the field in a hurry. Indeed, on Sunday the Broncos nearly beat a team that had a lot more at stake than they had. Going into the game, the Giants needed a win to stay tied with the Eagles for first place in the NFC East. Denver, which had already clinched the AFC West title, was playing for the home field advantage for the entire postseason. But even if the Broncos lost, they still had two more chances—at Phoenix and San Diego.

At Mile High Stadium, the Giants were snarling, wounded animals, playing minus linebacker Lawrence Taylor, whose back had tightened up before the game, for all but two plays. They also were missing left tackle Jumbo Elliott, their best drive-blocking lineman, who had back and ankle injuries, and wide-out Odessa Turner, their leading receiver, who had an injured knee. New York had to do it the hard way.

"One drive, one goal-line stand, one screen pass on third-and-31," Reeves said, describing the Giants' formula for success. "But give them credit. They made the plays. We didn't."

The Giants knocked the Broncos off the ball on their initial drive, and Simms, who was playing on a sore ankle, was 5 for 5 passing. "That first drive...I don't know...we went into a daze," said Bronco defensive end Ron Holmes. "They earned those seven points."

The next seven belonged to the 5'7" Meggett, the littlest Giant, who juggled the third-and-31 screen pass out between clearing blocks by left guard William Roberts and center Bart Oates, reversed his field and left three Broncos clutching air. "My God, third-and-31," Smith said. "They could run that play 100 more times and not score on it. They had four wideouts on the field, but we weren't even in our nickel defense—that's how safe we thought it was."

Reasons's big goal-line plays, especially the last one, in which he matched Bobby Humphrey's dive and knocked the 201-pound rookie ballcarrier a yard back, were good reads. "You get a look at the fullback leading the play," Reasons said, "and you just go."

Once upon a time, the Broncos might have tried to finesse the ball into the end zone, but they have confidence in their ground game now. Last year they ranked 19th in the NFL running the ball; going into the Giants game Denver was fifth. The new addition is Humphrey, the Broncos' No. 1 pick in the supplemental draft, plus a revamped offensive line that's 18� pounds heavier per man, tackle to tackle.

The Broncos have done something about their run defense, too. They were next to last in the league in '88, but before Sunday's game, they had moved up to ninth. Part of the improvement has come from the defensive scheme they've adopted. "We've simplified it under our coordinator, Wade Phillips," says inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "Plus we're not sitting back and reading as much. We're getting after people." Another factor is the Broncos' increase in size: They are seven pounds per man heavier on defense.

The most important factor, however, is their personnel. Steve Atwater, the 217-pound free safety, is a formidable force to team with Smith, who is having his best year. Michael Brooks, who has hobbled around on a sore left knee for two years, is finally emerging as a strong run stopper at outside linebacker; the guy in front of him, defensive end Alphonso Carreker, was brought in for his sturdiness at the point of attack. In 1988 the Broncos' defense allowed nine different backs to run for more than 100 yards in a game. This year no one has.

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