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.

The Noll Watch

Chuck Noll kept his team guessing about his future, even after the Steelers rewarded him with the game ball following their 17-10 win over the Browns on Sunday, which concluded a 7-9 season. The victory closed Noll's 23rd year as the Pittsburgh coach and gave him a 209-156-1 career record, but no one knew at season's end if he would be around for a 24th. "We're totally clueless," said cornerback Rod Woodson.

It's a very weighty decision in Pittsburgh, though. Steelers Digest, the team's weekly newspaper, suspended publication last week and doesn't plan to start up again until Noll or the club announces whether he'll return. "There's no sense in publishing now," editor Bob Labriola said, "because there isn't anything as important to our readers as whether Chuck Noll returns."

Noll and Steeler president Dan Rooney were scheduled to meet and discuss the coach's future soon. Steeler fans may have cast their vote with their one standing ovation during Sunday's game: It came in the fourth quarter when a likeness of Noll and his wife appeared on the scoreboard, followed by the message HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM CHUCK AND MARIANNE NOLL!

The Ticker's Fine

Last Thursday, three days after undergoing an angioplasty to clear blockage in an artery near his heart, Bill Parcells, the former Giants head man who's said to be on the short list to fill a number of coaching vacancies, felt a couple of muscle spasms in his chest. A bit alarmed, he called his cardiologist, Dr. Michael Kesselbrenner, who had Parcells come to his Ridgewood, N.J., office for a stress test. Thirty minutes into Parcells's workout on the treadmill, Kesselbrenner told him to stop. "Go to the gym tomorrow and do whatever you want," Kesselbrenner said. "Work out as hard as you want."

Parcells, 50, said the doctor told him the blockage will "absolutely not" have an effect on what he wants to do with the rest of his life. "I got a clean bill of health," says Parcells, who resumed his duties as an NBC analyst on Saturday. "I didn't have a heart problem, I had an artery problem. This thing has about a 25 percent chance of ever coming back, and if I stay clear for six months, there's a good chance I'll never get it again. [Former Georgia coach] Vince Dooley had a couple of these, and he went on as normal."

There are three NFC Central teams interested in Parcells's services: the Packers, the Bucs and the Vikings. Although he publicly waffles on his plans—"I definitely have not decided whether to come back," he says—Parcells is thought to be most interested in the Green Bay and Tampa Bay jobs. Now the question is, will the threat of another blocked artery dampen their enthusiasm for Parcells?

Stats of the Year

•Three years ago, three players, all of them quarterbacks—John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino—had contracts that paid an average annual salary of $1.5 million or more. Now that Eagle defensive end Reggie White earns an average of $1,513,00 there are 25 players making at least that much.

•The 1992 regular season will end on Jan. 4, 1993.

•The Chargers were 12-20 in the last two years that the much-criticized Steve Ortmayer was their general manager. They were 10-22 in the esteemed Bobby Beathard's first two seasons as his successor.

•Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery has made 35 of 37 field goal attempts in November and December the past two seasons.

•The Colts were outrushed by three individuals this year: Emmitt Smith (1,563 yards), Barry Sanders (1,548) and Thurman Thomas (1,407). Eric (One Happy Camper) Dickerson contributed 536 yards to Indianapolis's total of 1,169.

Dispatches

Raider boss Al Davis has to be thinking that he gave away the wrong quarterback when he traded backup Steve Beuerlein to the Cowboys for a fourth-round draft choice last August. Playing in place of the injured Troy Aikman. Beuerlein passed for 883 yards and five touchdowns in leading the Cowboys to five wins in the last five games of the regular season. Meanwhile, Raider incumbent Jay Schroeder threw for 480 yards and one touchdown in his last four starts before sitting out the final game of the year with sore ankles. "I haven't pressed the issue about playing, because I know my 80 percent isn't as good as Steve's 100 percent," says Aikman, whose sprained right knee has healed enough for him to play in a wildcard playoff this weekend....

It's ironic that just as the no-huddle offense has taken on trend status in the NFL—even a starched collar like Browns coach Bill Belichick used it effectively this year—its pioneer, Bengal coach Sam Wyche, is in danger of being dismissed in Cincinnati....

The most alarming rumor of the season was squelched by Steeler running back Tim Worley. He said on Sunday that he didn't leave a suicide note, as word had it. when he was suspended for six games by the NFL on Oct. 30 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. "I just left a note saying I had to get away for a few days," says Worley, who staked a claim for a starting job in 1992 with a 16-carry, 84-yard day against the Browns in his first extended action of a lost season. "I'd never think about killing myself, not until the Big Guy says it's my time."

...The Browns will go into the Plan B signing period as well as the draft with a crying need for offensive linemen. In the last three games of the season Bernie Kosar was sacked or knocked down 30 times. with 13 of those indignities suffered on Sunday against Pittsburgh.

Game of the Week
Los Angeles Raiders at Kansas City. These two wild-card teams pick up where they left off on Sunday, when the Chiefs defeated the Raiders 27-21 to win the home field advantage for this rematch in the first round of the playoffs. The last time that two teams played back-to-back weeks in closing the regular season and opening the playoffs, the Browns beat the Oilers 28-23 to finish the 1988 regular season and gain home field advantage for a wild-card game against Houston the following week. Marty Schottenheimer, now the coach of the Chiefs, was the Browns' head man in '88, when the Oilers turned the tables and won the wild-card game 24-23.

The End Zone

Heading into training camp before the start of the 1991 season, the 49ers' Steve Young was expected to earn his $1.9 million salary by filling the No. 2 quarterback spot on the San Francisco depth chart between starter Joe Montana and No. 3 man Steve Bono. But when Montana tore a tendon in his right elbow in July, Young became the starter. Then Young tore a ligament in his left knee on Nov. 3, and Bono became the starter. Even when Young was healthy enough to play again six weeks later, Bono remained in the lineup because the Niners had won four straight under his direction. But when Bono sprained his left knee on Dec. 14, Young became the starter again.

"Things wouldn't be normal if they weren't bizarre," Young says. To get away from it all after the season, Young will travel to Israel with 49er offensive tackle Harris Barton.

"Steve's the only guy I know who'd think of going to the occupied West Bank for a breather," says Young's agent, Leigh Steinberg.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERThat McKyer (22) is in the playoffs again says it all. PHOTOANTHONY NESTERussell's rookie stats could point to a Johnny Roland kind of career. PHOTOAL TIELEMANSThe Raiders may have given up on Beuerlein too quickly.

A LOOK AHEAD

Spanning New Horizons

The NFL likely will cut the field of expansion hopefuls from eight cities to four or five by the summer, with the final decision on which two cities will be awarded franchises coming next fall. The bet here is that Charlotte, St. Louis, Baltimore, Memphis and Jacksonville will make the cut, with Charlotte and St. Louis getting the franchises and Baltimore finishing a very close third. The logic behind the NFL's expanding into North Carolina and returning to Missouri:

•Charlotte: "I think we're a market without a weakness," says Mark Richardson, who heads up the group of investors seeking to bring a team to Charlotte. It's hard to argue with him. Charlotte is rumored to be the first choice of powerful NFL Properties, the marketing and merchandising arm of the league, because of the sports mania that is prevalent in the Carolinas. The Charlotte Hornets of the NBA have played before 125 consecutive sellouts, and sales of their merchandise have been high. The Carolinas incorporate six of the top 150 TV markets in America, and the nearest NFL franchise is 240 miles away in Atlanta.

•St. Louis: The city, county and state are politically united behind this campaign, which is the sort of support that was not in evidence in the mid-1980s when Bill Bidwell was threatening to move the Cardinals. NFL higher-ups like St. Louis's bid for many reasons: One of the three major partners involved in it, former Bears great Walter Payton, would be the first high-profile black in an NFL ownership group; fringe partner Fran Murray, who would become involved in the franchise after he has gotten the $38 million he is entitled to from the sale of his stake in the Patriots, has made lots of friends in the league by not going to court to press for his money from financially strapped New England majority owner Victor Kiam; and one of the league's biggest TV advertisers, Anheuser-Busch, is headquartered in St. Louis.

Grading the Young Guns

Which of the three meteoric teams of 1991 will emerge as the best of the lot in 1992? Here's how we rank their prospects:

1. Cowboys (11-5 in 1991). The average age of the Dallas starters is 27.04, eighth youngest in the league, and already coach Jimmy Johnson's youth movement is having an impact. The Cowboys played five rookies (defensive linemen Leon Lett, Tony Hill and Russell Maryland, linebacker Darrick Brownlow and cornerback Larry Brown) in their goal line defense late in the season against the Redskins and Saints. Dallas won both games. The heart of the offense—quarterback Troy Aikman (25), wideout Michael Irvin (25) and running back Emmitt Smith (22)—is young, and Dallas has six picks in the first three rounds of the '92 draft.

2. Falcons (10-6). Atlanta still turns the ball over too often (it had 36 giveaways in 1991, eighth highest in the league), and coach Jerry Glanville still doesn't have a strong running game. But the Falcons are the sixth youngest team in football (26.78 years), with a maturing quarterback (Chris Miller) and excellent receivers. What Atlanta needs—in addition to ballcarriers—are some ferocious and skilled players to fit into Glanville's aggressive defensive philosophy.

3. Lions (12-4). Detroit has the best back alive in Barry Sanders, but it's unclear who their quarterback of the future is. Also, the Lions' best pass rusher, linebacker Mike Cofer, will be 32 next year and is coming off a knee injury. But there are good signs: Detroit is a young team (average age of starters is 26.56, fourth youngest in the NFL), the rush defense is terrific, and the special teams might be the best in the league.

Stars of the Future

Using a formula prepared by the Elias Sports Bureau, SI tried to project how the emerging star at each of three skill positions might perform in the future. The first-year statistics for Patriots running back Leonard Russell, Buccaneer wideout Lawrence Dawsey and Charger quarterback John Friesz were compared with the numbers put up in the first full season played by selected past players of comparable size. Based on the stats of the former players, none of the three 1991 newcomers is a cinch to be a long-term star—or a flop:

YEAR

ATT.

YDS.

AVG.

TD

EXPECTATION RUNNING BACK

Leonard Russell, Pats, 6'2", 235

1991

266

959

3.61

4

LOW

Jim Harrison, Bears, 6'4", 238

1972

167

622

3.72

2

HIGH

Johnny Roland. Cards, 6'2", 220

1966

192

695

3.62

5

EXPECTATION WIDE RECEIVER

Lawrence Dawsey, Bucs, 6'0", 195

1991

55

818

14.9

3

LOW

Glenn Bass, Bills, 6'2", 190

1961

50

765

15.3

3

HIGH

Dan Abramowicz, Saints, 6'1", 191

1967

50

721

14.4

6

EXPECTATION QUARTERBACK

John Friesz,Chargers, 6'4", 209

1991

.538

2,896

12

15

LOW

Chuck Long, Lions, 6'4", 211

1987

.558

2,598

11

20

HIGH

Archie Manning, Saints, 6'3", 212

1972

.513

2,781

18

21

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)