The Denver Broncos have had to live with it for almost two years. They carried the AFC banner into two straight Super Bowls and were blown out both times. Two quarterbacks, the New York Giants' Phil Simms in 1987 and the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams in '88, had career days against the Broncos in those games. The Denver defense gave up 39 points to New York, 42 to Washington. The Redskins socked the Broncos for 602 yards. David had twice taken the field against Goliath, and when he fired his slingshot, butterflies flew out.
Last year the Broncos bottomed out at 8-8, their worst full season since coach Dan Reeves arrived in 1981. Their defense was next to last in the NFL against the rush. They were a bunch of little guys who got shoved around a lot. So the Broncos devoted this season to mending the parts. We will be bigger and stronger, they said. We will run the ball—and stop the run. We can play with the big boys.
On Sunday the big boys came to Mile High Stadium in the form of the Giants. Before Sunday's rematch, Giants coach Bill Parcells said that comparing the Super Bowl Giants with this edition of the team was like comparing War and Peace with Looney Tunes. But what the heck, revenge is still revenge.
The Broncos had already halfway vindicated themselves, on Nov. 20, when they beat Washington 14-10 in their most inspirational victory of the season. And they had done it in RFK Stadium on Monday night without their star quarterback, John Elway, who had a stomach virus. Now they would complete the sweep, or so the conventional wisdom ran, because the Giants were crippled with injuries, there would be lots of snow (Bronco weather), and Denver was the best team in the AFC, with no one close.
The final score? Giants 14, Broncos 7. As darkness settled over Denver on Sunday and the long line of traffic began to crawl home on I-25, you could hear the whispers, the innuendos: Physical teams beat finesse teams. The NFC beats the AFC in big games because it plays tougher, more physical football. Domination was the word that kept coming up.
"Nobody dominates us," said Bronco strong safety Dennis Smith after the game. "We don't expect anyone to."
"We weren't outphysicaled today," said Denver center Keith Kartz. "We haven't been outphysicaled all year."
At halftime the Giants led 14-0. They had dominated. An 85-yard scoring drive on their first possession. A 57-yard touchdown by running back David Meggett on a third-and-31 screen pass. A defense that limited Denver to 22 plays and 98 yards. That's about as much domination as you need to win on an ugly day, when yards come dearly.
In the press box, John Wooten, a director of pro personnel for the Cowboys who had been a guard for Cleveland during the Jim Brown era, had a short, precise analysis. "Let's face it," he said. "The Giants are in the NFC East, a kick-ass division. These AFC teams can't stand up to that."
Well, Denver had lost to Philadelphia, the NFC East's rogue elephant, 24-17 on Oct. 29, but they also had that big win over the Skins. And there still remained another half to play. In that one, Denver ran off 50 plays, gained 269 yards and allowed the Giants' offense just one peek past the 50-yard line.