This is what has to happen if the Kansas City chiefs are to make it all the way to super bowl XXV. Neil Smith has to make a big statement at defensive left end. Bill Maas has to assert himself on the other side, after having switched to end from nosetackle. The camp holdouts—linebacker Percy Snow, the top draft pick; right cornerback Kevin Ross; and left corner Albert Lewis, one of the game's best but a guy who is mad at the organization—must be ready to go by opening day. Finally, free safety Deron Cherry, a six-time Pro Bowl selection, has to come back from December knee surgery in time to be of help.
That's a lot of ifs, and you'll notice they're all on the defensive side of the ball. But if the gears mesh, the Chiefs could have the premier defense in the league, so good that they could go all the way to Tampa without a glamour quarterback. Steve Pelluer was supposed to have challenged Steve DeBerg for the starting spot, with second-year man Mike Elkins as the comer. It hasn't happened. Kansas City will have to win with defense, and the thunderous running of Christian Okoye.
How good is this defense? Let's start with nosetackle Danny Saleaumua, the best Plan B pickup ever, who was good enough to push Maas out of a job. Saleaumua is 297 pounds, strong enough to collapse the middle, nifty enough to drop back into coverage. Outside linebacker Derrick Thomas was All-Pro last season as a rookie. Chris Martin, on the other side, is vastly underrated. The defense could be good enough to control the tempo of any game.
Here's another big reason that I like the Chiefs: Marty Schottenheimer, the coach. Order and stability follow this man wherever he goes. He had the Browns in it every year, while overcoming some insurmountable obstacles.
What's interesting about K.C. is that it could go 8-8, while the conference's talent factories—-i.e., Denver, Cincinnati, Buffalo—fight it out at the top. But this time I'm betting on the long shot. Chiefs vs. Rams in Supe XXV.
Without pointing any fingers, let's try to figure out, dispassionately and analytically, what goes wrong with the DENVER BRONCOS once they hit the big time. Why does their Super Bowl record stand at 0-4?
Denver vs. Dallas: Offense crumbled under pressure of the Cowboy rush; an overmatch. Denver vs. Giants: Courageous first half for John Elway. Broncos got physically worn down on both sides of the ball in the second half. Denver vs. Washington: Terrible defensive collapse. Couldn't stop the Counter-Gap, the play everyone knew you had to stop to beat the Skins. Couldn't stop Doug Williams. Couldn't stop anything. Denver vs. San Francisco: Ditto. Joe Montana had a read on everything the Broncos and their new defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, were doing.
Is it the defensive scheme that has done in Denver of late? Is it lack of manpower? A combination of both? Or is it just the NFC's superiority over the AFC?
There's no dog in this team. Last year's victory over Washington in Week 11 was a heroic performance. When coach Dan Reeves underwent heart surgery during training camp, he was supposed to be out six weeks. He was back in one. The Broncos want it, all right, but is that enough?
Their starting lineup is exactly the same as it was last year, with one position switch. Karl Mecklenburg goes from inside linebacker to the outside, where he has found a home, exchanging positions with Michael Brooks. The coaching staff remains unchanged. The enemy will be looking at films of what San Francisco did to the Broncos, of how the Niners busted their zone at the seams. Denver will see a season of teams trying to do the same.