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Rocky Mountain High
The Broncos, who went 5-11 in 1990, are again clutching at Denver's heartstrings after going 12-4—the biggest single-season turnaround in their 32-year history—winning the AFC West and earning a first-round bye in the playoffs. But the Broncos still have something to prove because of the 39-20, 42-10 and 55-10 margins by which they have been defeated in three of the last five Super Bowls. They probably will have to beat the defending AFC champion Bills in Buffalo to reach Super Bowl XXVI, but the Broncos want that chance.
"All I know is, you can't win a Super Bowl if you're not in it," Denver coach Dan Reeves said after his team's 17-14 win over the Chargers on Sunday. "Nobody's been more embarrassed than we have, but I'd like to be in Minneapolis for another try."
Still, it's easy to doubt Denver's credentials. Coming off that fifth-place finish in 1990, the Broncos benefited from having a weak schedule: They played six games against nondivision teams that finished with losing records in '91, while AFC West runner-up Kansas City played two. And the Denver roster hasn't changed appreciably from the one that suffered the worst Super Bowl blowout in history, at the hands of the 49ers, 23 months ago.
But the Broncos enter the playoffs relatively healthy, and they're playing the best defense in the AFC. The Denver D led the conference in 11 categories, including sacks and fewest points allowed. Safeties Steve Atwater and Dennis Smith had especially terrific years, as much for coming up to help stop the run as for pass defense. According to Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer, Smith is having "the best year of any safety I've ever watched." It was fitting that the regular season ended with cornerbacks Charles Dimry and Le-Lo Lang intercepting passes to kill San Diego's last two drives. "We did it all year," said linebacker Simon Fletcher, who finished with 13.5 sacks. "That's like putting a final cap on the season."
Whoa, there. As painful as it might be, the Super Bowl is on the horizon again.
Quotes of the Year
•49er owner Eddie DeBartolo, at mid-season, on mouthy former Niner cornerback Tim McKyer: "I would rather lose a game without Tim McKyer than win one with him." His wish came true. San Francisco was 9-6 going into Monday night's finale against the Bears, and the Niners had been eliminated from the playoffs. Meanwhile, McKyer's current team, the Falcons, went 10-6 and was headed for a wildcard playoff at New Orleans.
•Eagle owner Norman Braman, on Philadelphia's going 10-6 and missing the playoffs: "It was an enormously successful season." Braman fired coach Buddy Ryan last January after Philly went 10-6, 11-5 and 10-6 in successive seasons but lost in the first round of postseason play each year. Braman's reasoning in sacking Ryan: He thought Ryan couldn't take the Eagles to the next level.
•Drug-plagued defensive end Dexter Manley, on joining the Bucs on Aug. 27: "[My staying off drugs] isn't temporary. I made a mistake in 1989, and it will never happen again." Two weeks ago Manley violated the league's substance-abuse policy for the fourth time in his NFL career and retired.