Week 15, 1998: The 13-0 Broncos, with MVP favorite Terrell Davis keying the highest-scoring offense in the AFC, travel to New Jersey to play the sub-.500 Giants at the Meadowlands. Weather for the 1 p.m. kickoff: No rain, light winds, 41 degrees.
Week 15, 2015: The 13-0 Panthers, with MVP favorite Cam Newton keying the highest-scoring offense in the NFC, travel to New Jersey to play the sub-.500 Giants at the Meadowlands. Projected weather for the 1 p.m. kickoff: No rain, light winds, 44 degrees.
Score in 1998: Giants 20, Broncos 16.
Score in 2015: “Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself,” says Carolina tight end Greg Olsen.
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The Panthers aren’t in exactly the same situation as Denver was 17 years ago. In 1998, the Giants were 5-8, and their quarterback was Kent Graham, a journeyman part-time starter who had seven career wins the day he went up against the great John Elway. Eli Manning will preside for the Giants on Sunday. He has 105 wins, including two Super Bowls over Tom Brady, who saw his own run at perfection ruined by New York. And, by the way, Manning has a pretty good deep threat in Odell Beckham Jr.
I called Graham at his home in Illinois and asked if he had any advice he’d share with this generation of Giants, who are 6-7 and six-point underdogs. “Not a lot I can say,” says Graham, who ended up winning 38 games in a 10-year NFL career. “Eli’s been through this—he’s won a lot of these games at the highest level. There’s nothing I can tell him that he doesn’t know. I always felt in a game like this, it’s important to remember these things: Do your job. One play at a time. Make great decisions. It’s cliché, I know, but that’s what wins.”
As Graham recalled on Tuesday, “The one thing I’ll never forget about that week … it’s the first time I was ever preparing for a game and I said to my wife, ‘I’m not sure we can beat these guys.’ They were the best in football, the defending Super Bowl champs, and everyone in football knew they were the best.”
It was a strange game from the start. The Broncos were held to three field goals through three quarters, with the Giants gaining more confidence as the game went on. But Terrell Davis, who had a monster game, ran around left end for a 27-yard touchdown with 4:08 left in the fourth quarter to give Denver a 16-13 lead. On the next series, the Giants were driving when running back Gary Brown fumbled and Bill Romanowski recovered it. With 3:36 left to play, it looked over.
That’s what Romanowski told Graham. “He had the ball, and he came over to me, waving it at me and saying some stuff, taunting, about how the game was over,’’ Graham says. “You know, trying to provoke me. I had to remember to keep my cool.”
On Tuesday, former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan also recalled the end of the game. Of the ensuing series, he said, “All we needed was one yard and the game’s over.”
Sort of. Davis was knocked back on second-and-1 for a loss of two, and then fullback Howard Griffith ran into the teeth of a blitz on third down. Loss of five, followed by a Denver punt.
The Giants got the ball back at their 14-yard line with 1:49 remaining.
“What I recall then,’’ Graham says, “is the crowd starting to get into it, really believing we could do it.”
Do it? Beat the great Broncos?
Kent Graham did it, capping a six-play, 86-yard drive with a deep route to Amani Toomer, who beat Denver’s nickel corner for 37 yards. Touchdown.
“It was like the whole team came out on the field to celebrate,” Graham says. “Amazing! My greatest day in football.”
The drive took only 61 seconds.
Next series: Elway took a huge sack from Chad Bratzke, and the Giants hung on for the four-point win.
Denver lost the following week as well, to Miami, and then won their regular-season finale before going on a roll and winning a second straight championship—in Elway’s last season.
“That loss might have been the best thing to happen to us,” Shanahan says. “We had everybody telling us how great we were, and maybe losing brought us back to reality a little bit. By the last game of the year [a win over Seattle], our guys were pissed. And we got back to playing great, I thought.”
So, I asked Shanahan: What advice would you have for Ron Rivera, if Rivera were in a similar spot, having clinched the top seed with one or two games to go before the playoffs? Preserve the health of your team, or go for the undefeated season and history?
“Go for it,’’ Shanahan says. “It’s football. Keep the same mindset. Keep your foot on the accelerator. You hear it all the time once you clinch: ‘Can’t play your stars. Can’t risk your guys getting hurt.’ Well, it’s a risk. You don’t want Cam Newton getting hurt, obviously. But you’ve got to play football, and play it with your best guys.”
My feeling, too. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds for the Panthers.
Now for your email:
NFL ELIGIBILITY RULE
How about this? Ban the signing of an agent until after the draft for non-seniors. People can declare for the draft after one year, but freshmen who aren’t drafted in the first two rounds must return to school, sophomores must be drafted in top four rounds, and juniors must be drafted. Or all return to school. Only senior UDFAs.
— Kris Barrie, Renfrew, Ontario, Canada
That’s not a bad idea. I would agree with the freshmen and sophomore rules, but I think that any junior who declares after three years in college should not be forced to return to school. It would force NFL teams to be sure about a guy at a very young age if they were going to pick him, say, in the first two rounds. Thanks for the cool idea.
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STAT OF THE WEEK NOTE
“With Sunday night’s victory, the Patriots have now won at least 11 regular-season games six years in a row. Cleveland has won 11 regular-season games once since 1987.”
Even better is that Belichick was the coach in Cleveland when that happened in 1994.
You are right. I thought of that and what occurred to me was that Belichick also had four of the seasons on the other side of the ledger. But it is pretty sad to realize that since the Browns were reborn 16 years ago, they’ve never been as good as 11-5.
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ON QUARTERBACKS TACKLING
Why don’t teams tell their quarterbacks to run away from a player returning an interception? An injury to a quarterback attempting a tackle (usually unsuccessfully) has happened too many times and they are too valuable to the overall success of the team. I’m amazed that it isn’t a directive from the coach.
I bet in Cincinnati it will be now.
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I’d love to see the Heisman committee formally invite five deserving players every year to New York for the trophy announcement. They’ve had three to five over a variety of years, but the award the Heisman is most often compared to—the Academy Award, in terms of prestige and name recognition—always has five finalists for the Best Actor category, etc. Why not invite five for the thrill of saying they made the Heisman finals? I would have loved to have seen Navy’s Keenan Reynolds or a number of other players at least get the invite to New York, even if their chances of winning were a little slim.
— Joe Nye, Bear, Delaware
That’s an interesting proposal. But I think at least part of the reason why very distant vote-getters aren’t invited to New York is because it might appear a little embarrassing if, let’s say, the Navy quarterback was sitting there and the vote totals were put up and people saw that he was a hundred miles behind the other three. I don’t know why the Heisman people do it this way, but that seems like the most logical reason.
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You reported Monday that Cincinnati’s AJ McCarron has not taken a live NFL snap this year. Under starter Andy Dalton, the Bengals won double-digit victories of 33-13 over the Raiders; 36-21 over the Chiefs; 34-21 over the Bills; 31-10 over the Browns and 31-7 over the Rams. Why wouldn’t a smart coach give his second-string quarterback some fourth quarter live-action play in a low-stress blowout environment, before being thrown into the pressure of starting a game when the No. 1 guy is severely injured?
— Joe McLaughlin, Red Deer, Alberta
What I said was that he had never started an NFL game, not that he had never appeared in one. He has actually appeared in four games. Before Sunday, he had thrown only four balls in his three NFL games. I can see Bengals coaches might have been better off in letting him throw the ball a little bit more, but when you come into a game that is lopsided, you also don’t want to be running up the score. Ultimately, there’s no way a guy like AJ McCarron is going to be ready to start a game short of having previously started games. There is little doubt in my mind that he will draw more from the 36 games he won at Alabama then from the 36 passes he’s thrown so far in the NFL.
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FAVRE DID IT, CAN DALTON?
If I remember correctly, Brett Favre played multiple games during the 2003 season with a broken thumb on his throwing hand. Isn’t it possible for Andy Dalton to do the same—or is the severity of his break worse? Or is this just another case of Favre being superhuman and playing through an injury when no other normal person would?
— Zak Hermans
No clue. You’d have to be a doctor viewing the X-rays of both to determine this. The bottom line is, Favre could have had a hairline fracture and Dalton could have a complete fracture. We just don’t know.
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TOM CLEMENTS COULD STILL BE A HEAD COACH
Jim Fassel taking play-calling duties from Sean Payton in 2002 didn’t prevent Payton from getting a head-coaching job. Tom Clements isn’t totally out of a future head-coaching job. Does this make you rethink what you said, that McCarthy taking back play calling “will likely doom Clements’ hopes for ever being an NFL head coach.”
— Josh Sobin
It’s certainly not impossible. But with a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers and talented receivers and talented running backs, if you’re calling the plays for a team that never struggled offensively and all of a sudden through 12 games is struggling mightily offensively, I think it’s going to take a while for a coach to overcome that.