The Denver Broncos have had to live with it for almost two years. They carried the AFC banner into two straight Super Bowls and were blown out both times. Two quarterbacks, the New York Giants' Phil Simms in 1987 and the Washington Redskins' Doug Williams in '88, had career days against the Broncos in those games. The Denver defense gave up 39 points to New York, 42 to Washington. The Redskins socked the Broncos for 602 yards. David had twice taken the field against Goliath, and when he fired his slingshot, butterflies flew out.
Last year the Broncos bottomed out at 8-8, their worst full season since coach Dan Reeves arrived in 1981. Their defense was next to last in the NFL against the rush. They were a bunch of little guys who got shoved around a lot. So the Broncos devoted this season to mending the parts. We will be bigger and stronger, they said. We will run the ball—and stop the run. We can play with the big boys.
On Sunday the big boys came to Mile High Stadium in the form of the Giants. Before Sunday's rematch, Giants coach Bill Parcells said that comparing the Super Bowl Giants with this edition of the team was like comparing War and Peace with Looney Tunes. But what the heck, revenge is still revenge.
The Broncos had already halfway vindicated themselves, on Nov. 20, when they beat Washington 14-10 in their most inspirational victory of the season. And they had done it in RFK Stadium on Monday night without their star quarterback, John Elway, who had a stomach virus. Now they would complete the sweep, or so the conventional wisdom ran, because the Giants were crippled with injuries, there would be lots of snow (Bronco weather), and Denver was the best team in the AFC, with no one close.
The final score? Giants 14, Broncos 7. As darkness settled over Denver on Sunday and the long line of traffic began to crawl home on I-25, you could hear the whispers, the innuendos: Physical teams beat finesse teams. The NFC beats the AFC in big games because it plays tougher, more physical football. Domination was the word that kept coming up.
"Nobody dominates us," said Bronco strong safety Dennis Smith after the game. "We don't expect anyone to."
"We weren't outphysicaled today," said Denver center Keith Kartz. "We haven't been outphysicaled all year."
At halftime the Giants led 14-0. They had dominated. An 85-yard scoring drive on their first possession. A 57-yard touchdown by running back David Meggett on a third-and-31 screen pass. A defense that limited Denver to 22 plays and 98 yards. That's about as much domination as you need to win on an ugly day, when yards come dearly.
In the press box, John Wooten, a director of pro personnel for the Cowboys who had been a guard for Cleveland during the Jim Brown era, had a short, precise analysis. "Let's face it," he said. "The Giants are in the NFC East, a kick-ass division. These AFC teams can't stand up to that."
Well, Denver had lost to Philadelphia, the NFC East's rogue elephant, 24-17 on Oct. 29, but they also had that big win over the Skins. And there still remained another half to play. In that one, Denver ran off 50 plays, gained 269 yards and allowed the Giants' offense just one peek past the 50-yard line.
The Giants were sitting on their lead and taking care to avoid turnovers, which had done them in in their two previous games. In the third quarter, Giants inside linebacker Gary Reasons came up with two big stops on the one-yard line. The Broncos reached the Giants' 15 late in the fourth quarter and ran out of downs; a little over a minute and a half later Denver reached the New York 34 and ran out of clock.
Domination? Well, not in the second half. The Broncos lost the battle but they shed an image in the process. They are wimps no longer. They can play physical football with anyone, and Elway can still bring them down the field in a hurry. Indeed, on Sunday the Broncos nearly beat a team that had a lot more at stake than they had. Going into the game, the Giants needed a win to stay tied with the Eagles for first place in the NFC East. Denver, which had already clinched the AFC West title, was playing for the home field advantage for the entire postseason. But even if the Broncos lost, they still had two more chances—at Phoenix and San Diego.
At Mile High Stadium, the Giants were snarling, wounded animals, playing minus linebacker Lawrence Taylor, whose back had tightened up before the game, for all but two plays. They also were missing left tackle Jumbo Elliott, their best drive-blocking lineman, who had back and ankle injuries, and wide-out Odessa Turner, their leading receiver, who had an injured knee. New York had to do it the hard way.
"One drive, one goal-line stand, one screen pass on third-and-31," Reeves said, describing the Giants' formula for success. "But give them credit. They made the plays. We didn't."
The Giants knocked the Broncos off the ball on their initial drive, and Simms, who was playing on a sore ankle, was 5 for 5 passing. "That first drive...I don't know...we went into a daze," said Bronco defensive end Ron Holmes. "They earned those seven points."
The next seven belonged to the 5'7" Meggett, the littlest Giant, who juggled the third-and-31 screen pass out between clearing blocks by left guard William Roberts and center Bart Oates, reversed his field and left three Broncos clutching air. "My God, third-and-31," Smith said. "They could run that play 100 more times and not score on it. They had four wideouts on the field, but we weren't even in our nickel defense—that's how safe we thought it was."
Reasons's big goal-line plays, especially the last one, in which he matched Bobby Humphrey's dive and knocked the 201-pound rookie ballcarrier a yard back, were good reads. "You get a look at the fullback leading the play," Reasons said, "and you just go."
Once upon a time, the Broncos might have tried to finesse the ball into the end zone, but they have confidence in their ground game now. Last year they ranked 19th in the NFL running the ball; going into the Giants game Denver was fifth. The new addition is Humphrey, the Broncos' No. 1 pick in the supplemental draft, plus a revamped offensive line that's 18½ pounds heavier per man, tackle to tackle.
The Broncos have done something about their run defense, too. They were next to last in the league in '88, but before Sunday's game, they had moved up to ninth. Part of the improvement has come from the defensive scheme they've adopted. "We've simplified it under our coordinator, Wade Phillips," says inside linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "Plus we're not sitting back and reading as much. We're getting after people." Another factor is the Broncos' increase in size: They are seven pounds per man heavier on defense.
The most important factor, however, is their personnel. Steve Atwater, the 217-pound free safety, is a formidable force to team with Smith, who is having his best year. Michael Brooks, who has hobbled around on a sore left knee for two years, is finally emerging as a strong run stopper at outside linebacker; the guy in front of him, defensive end Alphonso Carreker, was brought in for his sturdiness at the point of attack. In 1988 the Broncos' defense allowed nine different backs to run for more than 100 yards in a game. This year no one has.
Whether you like them or not, the Broncos represent the AFC's best chance in the Super Bowl because the rest of the conference is in such a mess. The Bills, practically everyone's preseason Super Bowl choice, have gone into a funk, losing four of their last six games. When the Bills' defense has the emotional burners turned up, they can beat anybody. But where has the intensity been for the last month and a half? The Dolphins are tied with Buffalo at 8-6 for the AFC East lead, but they seem capable of losing to anyone. The Oilers are 9-5 and are sprinting away from the AFC Central, but they're a dumb team that the Browns beat with a high school bag of tricks. The Browns (7-6-1) can't find an offense—or a win. The Bengals are 7-7 and fading, with four losses in their last six games. The Steelers are still in it at 7-7. In the AFC West, the Raiders are 8-6 with two games left on the road, where they're 1-5 this year, and the Chiefs are 7-6-1.
Now, there's an interesting team. Killer defense. The Chiefs gave Green Bay quarterback Don Majkowski all sorts of misery in their 21-3 win over the Packers on Sunday. He was reduced to a three-step drop toward the end of that game, and K.C. was still getting two and three guys in his face. The Chiefs barely lost to Denver 16-13, on Nov. 12. Since then they've been on a roll, going 3-0-1 and allowing 34 points total.
Yep, in the cold weather ahead a defensive team like the Chiefs could make a lot of people nervous. But they have to get into the playoffs first. And their last two games are against San Diego at home and Miami on the road.
So right now the Broncos are the AFC's hope. And Denver owner Pat Bowlen is ready for the challenge. "I'd feel a lot more confident going into the Super Bowl with this team," he says, "than I did in the last two."