Shanahan's team came out of the blocks quickly, as it has so often over the past three seasons, answering an Atlanta field goal with a touchdown on its first drive. The Falcons geared their defense to stop Davis, and although last year's Super Bowl MVP ran for 102 yards on 25 carries, he didn't dominate as he had against the Packers. Buchanan, whose inflammatory statements leading up to the game included a victory guarantee, shut out Pro Bowl wideout Ed McCaffrey in the first half. (McCaffrey had five catches for 72 yards in the second.) And Sharpe missed the final three quarters after suffering a sprained left knee on a tackle by Buchanan near the goal line during Denver's opening drive.
But the Broncos' defense bedeviled the Falcons (box, page 38), forcing four turnovers—including three interceptions of Chris Chandler, whose quarterback rating over the previous six games had been 125.0—and allowing only a pair of field goals until a garbage-time touchdown with 2:04 remaining. Offensively, Elway seized the moment, completing 18 of 29 passes with one interception, on a drop by Sharpe. "They took Terrell out of the game and dared John to beat 'em, " said Tom Nalen, Denver's Pro Bowl center. "Well, John beat 'em. It was weird. Even the defensive backs weren't really respecting him. I'd never seen that."
Shanahan surprised the Falcons by having Elway fake handoffs to Davis on several short-yardage plays and instead give the ball to fullback Howard Griffith, who scored on a pair of one-yard touchdown runs. On Denver's other rushing touchdown, Griffith, the lone running back, went in motion to the left, and Elway scored on a three-yard quarterback draw. That gave the Broncos a 31-6 lead with 11:20 to go and sent 74,803 fans into postgame party-planning mode.
Rather than forcing the ball to McCaffrey in the first half, Elway locked in on wideout Rod Smith, a practice-squad player in '94 who carries a wrinkled, one-dollar food stamp in his wallet to remind him of his less fortunate past. Smith, held without a catch in last year's Super Bowl, had five receptions for 152 yards. On the Broncos' fifth offensive play, Smith lined up in the backfield, went in motion to the right and found a seam in Atlanta's zone, turning a quick pass into a 41-yard gain. "You give this staff two weeks to prepare," Smith said, "and it's going to be hell on a defense."
Yet Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak made the game's most significant adjustment on the fly. When they studied a photo of a second-quarter play that resulted in an 18-yard Elway pass to Smith, they noticed the Falcons' safeties had bitten on a play fake to Davis, leaving themselves vulnerable in the deep middle of the field. Shanahan suggested Elway run the play again but change Smith's route from a buttonhook to a post pattern. "We hadn't used it in six or seven weeks," Shanahan said. "We certainly hadn't practiced it that way in some time." Shanahan thought the revised play, Fake 19 Handoff QB Keep Right X Post, could go for a touchdown, and he waited for an ideal situation to call it: After Atlanta's Morten Andersen missed a 26-yard field goal with 5:07 left in the first half, allowing the Broncos to keep their 10-3 lead, Denver took over at its own 20. Elway faked a handoff to Davis and hummed one of the sweetest spirals he has ever
thrown. Smith blew by Robinson with an inside-out move, caught the ball in stride at the Falcons' 43 and coasted into the end zone.
"I'd say there have only been a handful of times this year when we called something in a game that we hadn't practiced that week," said Denver left guard Mark Schlereth. "This play was not only a testament to how we prepare but also to how much Mike trusts the players."
As disturbing as Robinson's Saturday-night ordeal was, the Broncos couldn't resist making light of his plight during the game. When Robinson missed a tackle near the Denver sideline, allowing a 39-yard catch-and-run by Davis that set up the Broncos' final touchdown, several players screamed, "You look a little tired, Eugene. Up late last night?" It didn't escape the Broncos, who received two free in-room movies as part of their daily hotel allowance, that Robinson, through the magic of Spectravision, could have saved $31.05 and achieved practically the same thing. "That would have been easier," Elway said, "but I guess the Falcons didn't get the free movies."
While most of the Falcons said Robinson's arrest had no effect on their performance, Reeves conceded that "little things make a big difference in any ball game; it certainly didn't help us."
Elway called the incident "a major tragedy that must have affected his game, because there's no doubt he was embarrassed. The whole team had to deal with it, and that cost them. I know from experience—and it took me a while to learn this—that the whole deal with the Super Bowl is keeping your focus on football, and Mike does a great job of keeping us away from the hype."
All week long Elway maintained a healthy perspective on the ultimate game. On the Monday night before the Super Bowl, he and several teammates traveled by helicopter to a private party in Miami. When the chopper approached Pro Player Stadium, Elway asked the pilot to circle a few times so he could admire the view. "It was just so cool to see it from that vantage point," Elway said. "It made the whole spectacle seem a little smaller."