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At midweek the Chief locker room at Arrowhead Stadium was festive with Christmas spirit, much of the cheer emanating-from defensive end Neil Smith's cubicle, which was decorated with wreaths, ornaments, pictures of Santa Claus and blinking, multihued lights, much like a display at your local Walgreens. The sackmeister himself ( Smith's two sacks of Elway would give him an AFC-leading 13) seemed unbowed by the jinx. He hummed along with the Christmas carols wafting from the tape machine under his stacked football shoes. "I'm celebrating the holidays," said Smith, "and maybe a division championship."
But Chief cornerback Dale Carter was apprehensive. "First of all, we hate it," he said of Denver's high-altitude home field, "because we can't breathe up there."
Before the game, though, the perception was that this was the year the jinx might be snapped, and the reality, at least through the first quarter, was that the Montana-led Chiefs couldn't be stopped. On the game's opening series Old Joe led his team on an effortless drive that culminated in an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jonathan Hayes. Phillips stood on the sideline, hatless and headset-free, speaking to no one, reverentially watching Montana's performance like some entertainment-starved trapper fresh out of the Rockies. "I like to see good players play," he had said before the game. "I'm a fan. That's why I liked being the defensive coordinator here, because I could watch John in the two-minute drives."
The Chiefs were on a roll, and it seemed as if there would be no opportunity for Denver drives of any kind. Marcus Allen, the Chiefs' other ageless off-season acquisition, scored his AFC-leading 14th touchdown on a four-yard run midway through the second quarter, and except for a first-quarter interception by Denver cornerback Ronnie Bradford ("Not many people in America have intercepted a pass from a legend!" said the excited young man later), Montana appeared infallible. Still, Elway's nine-yard touchdown pass to Sharpe at the end of the first half made the score 14-10, Chiefs, and hinted at the possibilities ahead.
In the third quarter the two quarterbacks matched each other thrust for thrust. Elway hit Sharpe on another scoring pass, and Montana countered six minutes later with a 29-yard beauty to wide-out Willie Davis, putting Kansas City back in the lead 21-17. Then, with just over three minutes gone in the final period, came the blocked punt by Rivers, and suddenly Elway was looking at the go-ahead score. The 6'2", 230-pound Sharpe, sculpted like a park statue but agile as a tumbler, promptly beat safety Doug Terry on an out pattern into the right side of the end zone. "I saw man coverage, and I knew John saw it and was coming to me," said Sharpe, who caught 10 passes for 65 yards and three touchdowns. "I'm not the fastest man, but I can heal am safety."
The Broncos made it 27-21 eight minutes later when Jason Elam drilled a 53-yard field goal, a kick that had serious velocity to it. "In practice I've kicked a 73-yarder," Elam noted of the blast. "I hit this one that well."
There was, of course, one last chance for the Chiefs' delicate genius to work his craft. With 2:26 left to play and no timeouts, Montana took over at his own 20. But the jinx was as secure as the Broncos' seven-man secondary, and Montana's final fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
"I'd much rather have him in that situation," Elway said of Montana. "Especially with us up by six." Then he grinned. "But if it were just a field goal you needed, I'd rather be in there. You never think anything's out of reach."