He will be accused of foolhardiness, of sending his team the
wrong message. Certainly New England Patriots coach Bill
Parcells was guilty of that. A fake punt on your first
possession, when your team has the ball on its 32-yard line and
the other team has John Elway at quarterback? Men, we have no
chance today unless we try some tricks.
This minor deception, the fake punt that failed, revealed a
major one. Sunday's game between the Patriots and the Denver
Broncos in Foxboro, Mass., was billed as a collision of Super
Bowl hopefuls. The Broncos came in 9-1 and were looking to take
another step toward locking up home field advantage throughout
the AFC playoffs. The Patriots, having won six of their last
seven to get to 7-3, were eager to measure themselves against a
quality opponent. In the days leading up to the game,
Parcells--who coached the New York Giants to Super Bowl wins in
the 1986 and '90 seasons--had titillated New England fans by
intimating that the Pats were capable of winning an NFL
championship. But after Denver dished out a 34-8 comeuppance,
the question was not so much whether New England could win the
Super Bowl as whether it would reach the playoffs. "If we play
defense like we did today," disgusted Patriots defensive end
Willie McGinest said after the game, "we will never win another
game. We will be home by Christmas. I am embarrassed."
You would be too, if your opponent had amassed 422 yards of
offense and you had spent the afternoon being dominated by a
one-armed man. Despite nursing an injured right shoulder that
threatened to snap his consecutive-game streak at 166, Broncos
left tackle Gary Zimmerman manhandled McGinest. Asked if he had
required a painkilling injection during the game, Zimmerman
politely replied, "No comment."
That economical brush-off has become the watchword of Denver's
dynamite offensive line. At the suggestion of their position
coach, Alex Gibbs, these thick-set gentlemen have opted not to
talk to the media, even as they reserve the right to complain if
they feel they are not being accorded sufficient credit.
Slim chance of that after the way the Broncos' offensive line
dominated on Sunday, clearing a path for second-year tailback
Terrell Davis. He rushed 32 times for 154 yards, caught four
passes for 56 more, scored three touchdowns and refused on most
occasions when he touched the ball to be brought down by fewer
than four tacklers. While Davis attributed his big day to the
Denver hogs, the Pats also took some credit. "How hard is it to
tackle?" said New England linebacker Chris Slade. "We learned
how to tackle in peewee league, and that's how we tackled
today--like we were playing peewee."
Parcells said that New England's tackling "stunk," but then his
fourth-and-one call on the Patriots' opening possession was
malodorous as well. New England punter Tom Tupa, a former Ohio
State quarterback, lofted a perfect pass into the hands of Pats
linebacker turned receiver Tedy Bruschi near the New England 45.
But the ball was immediately swatted away by Denver rookie
cornerback Tory James. Five plays later Elway connected with
Davis on a 15-yard touchdown pass, muzzling Foxboro Stadium's
boisterous and well-lubricated denizens. "I love New England in
the fall--it was a beautiful day," Davis said after the game.
"The stadium isn't particularly loud. I mean, you can hear the
fans, but it's not like Oakland or Kansas City. This was
something we could handle."
Since joining the Broncos as a sixth-round draft pick in 1995,
Davis has awed his teammates with his lack of awe and his
ability, in the wake of his success (he has rushed for more than
2,300 yards in 25 career games), to keep both feet on the
ground. Even though he signed a five-year, $6.8 million contract
following his rookie season, he has not purchased a new
car--"Guys on the team keep asking me, 'Where's your Benz?'" he
says--choosing instead to drive the Ford Bronco he bought as a
rookie. While denying that he is excessively frugal, Davis
admits that he still uses underwear he owned as a freshman at
Long Beach State. "Hey," he says, "it's still in good condition."
Even though he was the 21st running back taken in the 1995
draft, Davis arrived in Denver with a quiet confidence that he
would start--and star. He learned a complex offense and sailed
up the depth chart. Everything came easily to him. Everything
but staying awake. On three occasions last season he was
admonished by coaches for falling asleep in meetings. "And those
were just the times they caught me," says Davis. Once, he was
awakened by coach Mike Shanahan, who screamed, "Pay attention!"
and fined him.
Shanahan doesn't scream at Davis much anymore. After Sunday's
game, when the subject of Davis's maturity came up, Shanahan
said, "He's a levelheaded guy. He's been there." A second-year
player? "Well," said Shanahan, "he acts like he's been there."
Shanahan was knotting his tie in the coaches' dressing room when
Elway walked by. "Great job today, John," Shanahan said. In
truth Elway had been, by Elway standards, merely solid: 14-of-23
passing for 175 yards, one touchdown, one interception. Just
because he's famous for engineering dramatic victories doesn't
mean Elway doesn't prefer the games, like Sunday's, that are
wrapped up by halftime. "What's the best way to win a Super
Bowl--not just get there but win it?" Elway had asked the day
before. He answered his own question. "You've got to be balanced
on offense, and you've got to play good defense. That's why our
team's exciting, because we're doing both right now."
The Broncos' defense, ranked fourth in the league coming into
Sunday's game, held New England to 17 yards rushing. A week
earlier the Denver D had done something that the Broncos usually
leave up to Elway: It won a game in the last minute, stoning the
Chicago Bears on four consecutive goal line plays to preserve a
17-12 victory. Contributing tackles in that series were
defensive end Alfred Williams and strongside linebacker Bill
Romanowski, both of whom signed with Denver as free agents in
the off-season, and both of whom have played huge roles in the
Broncos' success in 1996.
Williams, a natural comedian who takes his fellow defensive
linemen bowling every Thursday night--"With a name like Al, you
think I don't know how to bowl?" he says--provides laughter and
sacks (11 this season, tying him for the NFL lead). Romanowski,
who leads Denver with 97 tackles and who has never missed a game
in nine seasons as a pro, provides durability, leadership and
candor. "How about Bledsoe today?" he remarked on his way to the
team bus after Sunday's game. "He was pretty terrible."
As good as Elway has been against the Patriots--he has not lost
to them in nine meetings--New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe
hasn't played well on the two occasions he has lined up against
the Broncos. Last Friday, Bledsoe and the other members of the
Patriots offense sequestered themselves in a room in Foxboro
Stadium to screen a horror video: a montage of lowlights from
last season's 37-3 loss to Denver. Little did they know that
they were also viewing a prequel.
As the tape from last October's game showed Bledsoe overthrowing
receivers, spraying the ball hither and yon, tackle Bruce
Armstrong leaned over to the fourth-year quarterback and said,
"I don't know that guy who's wearing number 11, but I'm glad
he's not playing here anymore."
They shared a laugh, and why not? After struggling through the
1995 season, in which he had more interceptions (16) than
touchdown passes (13), Bledsoe had returned to the form that
marked him in '94 as the NFL's most promising Generation X
quarterback. Going into Sunday's game he had thrown 18 touchdown
passes and only eight interceptions; his confidence and
mechanics, absent for long stretches in '95, had returned.
Against the Broncos, however, Bledsoe became that number 11 from
the video. With New England already trailing 7-0, his third pass
of the day was picked off by strong safety Steve Atwater and
returned 11 yards to the Patriots' 42. It was a bad throw and
led, five plays later, to Denver's second TD: Davis took a pitch
from Elway at the 10, cut back behind a wall of white jerseys
and strolled into the end zone.
What the Pats had begun to suspect--that they were in for a long
afternoon--was confirmed early in the second quarter when Davis
muffed a handoff from Elway at the New England two-yard line.
The ball bounced directly up to Davis, who never broke stride
and lunged into the end zone. "It was a crossover dribble," he
joked afterward. "I was looking for someone spotted up in the
corner, but I couldn't find anyone, so I had to drive to the
Davis's touchdown made it 21-0 and, with five weekends left in
the regular season, virtually clinched the Broncos' first
playoff appearance since 1993. But after Sunday's game it became
clear that Denver had been playing for something more compelling
than home field advantage. Call it respect. After the game,
Elway evinced amazement that despite its inferior record, New
England had been made a 2 1/2-point favorite by oddsmakers at
game time. "To be 9-1 and come in here as an underdog," he said.
"That's just...." Noticing a TV camera, he wisely held his tongue.
In the back of the visitors' dressing room, the offensive
linemen maintained their vigil of silence--for the most part.
Asked to talk about Davis, one of them briefly forgot himself.
"We did all right today, but Terrell did a great job," he said.
"He found the holes, and when there was nothing available, he
cut back on the front side. He's a great back and the nicest guy
you'd ever want to meet. We're very fortunate to have him. Hey!
Don't write that down. This is off the record."