Nobody's Perfect Believe it or not, the Broncos felt relieved after their dream of an unblemished season ended with an 11th-hour loss to the Giants

December 21, 1998

What poured out of the Denver Broncos after their dream of an
undefeated season was shattered at Giants Stadium on Sunday was
not anger or regret but a sense of relief. Upon leaving the
Broncos' locker room, John Elway stopped for a chat with New
York Giants coach Jim Fassel and then high-fived a few fans
before boarding the team bus. Wideout Ed McCaffrey, a former
Giant, grieved over Denver's first loss in 19 games by hanging
out with some old friends inside the New York locker room, while
on the field running back Terrell Davis signed autographs and
posed for pictures with some peewee football players.

Despite the shocking 20-16 loss to the Giants, the Broncos'
postgame demeanor seemed to suggest, Oh, well, what the heck,
nobody's perfect. "I'm happy as hell that's off my back," said
defensive tackle Keith Traylor. "It was wearing me down. I was
tired of hearing about it. Everywhere I went, people would ask,
'You guys going undefeated?' And I always told them, 'I don't
know. I just want to win the Super Bowl.'" Added defensive end
Neil Smith, "It was a burden. And the burden was heavy."

Finally, this from tight end Shannon Sharpe: "More and more as
the games piled up, we noticed that people weren't just trying to
beat the world champs. They were also trying to end the streak.
Give me 18-1, that's what I want. Because they don't give out
rings or Lombardi trophies to people who go 16-0 in the regular
season."

In fact, only Denver coach Mike Shanahan seemed to grasp what the
6-8 Giants had stolen from the Broncos. Yes, Denver has already
clinched the AFC West title along with home field advantage
throughout the playoffs, but the Broncos missed a chance to carve
out a piece of history for themselves. Instead of owning the
league record for consecutive wins, Denver, which had last lost
on Dec. 15, 1997, now shares the mark of 18 with four other
teams. Moreover, the Broncos' bid to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins
as the only team to go through a season undefeated is finished.
"[The unbeaten season] was something special this team was
shooting for," said Shanahan. "Obviously, now that's out the
window."

Under Shanahan, a win earns players both Monday and Tuesday off
along with a light Friday practice. This week it's back to a full
workload for the Broncos, who are 6-7 in December during
Shanahan's four-year watch. Judging by the way Denver has played
in its last two games, against the Kansas City Chiefs and the
Giants, that might not be such a bad thing. In those games the
Broncos turned the ball over four times and led for a grand total
of 21 minutes. In its first 12 games combined, Denver trailed for
only 29 minutes.

"Maybe now we can look through the clutter and figure out what
our goal was at the beginning of the season," said Elway. "The
bottom line is we want to win a world championship. Going
undefeated was just icing on the cake. Have we lost the chance to
do something special? Jeez, I think winning a Super Bowl is still
pretty special."

What remains to be seen, however, is how drained Denver is from
its quest for perfection. Will the Broncos regroup as they did
last season, when after losing three of their last six games,
they stormed back to win the Super Bowl as a wild card? Or, with
nothing to play for in the regular season, will they repeat their
meltdown of 1996, when they coasted through the final weeks, only
to be shocked at home in a divisional playoff game by the
Jacksonville Jaguars?

Going into Sunday's game, the Giants hadn't beaten a team with a
winning record. Denver, as it did in late-season losses to the
Pittsburgh Steelers and the San Francisco 49ers in 1997, seemed
to lose its focus and abandon its physical style--particularly
on defense. Breaking four tackles along the way, New York's Gary
Brown ripped off a 45-yard run early in the fourth quarter. An
offside penalty on cornerback Ray Crockett kept that drive alive
by nullifying an apparent goal line fumble recovery by the
Broncos. The Giants eventually kicked a field goal that extended
their lead to 13-9. On the game-winning drive, New York, which
entered the game with the NFL's 29th-ranked offense, marched 86
yards in six plays, the capper coming on a 37-yard pass from
Kent Graham to wideout Amani Toomer with 48 seconds left. If
Graham, a journeyman with a 65.4 quarterback rating this year,
can do that much damage to Denver's pass defense in 61 seconds,
imagine what the Minnesota Vikings' Randall Cunningham might do
over the course of a game.

"We are definitely not playing as well as we were earlier in the
year," said Elway, who completed 19 of 36 passes for 180 yards,
with one interception and no touchdowns. "That's something we
can take care of--and we have to. You win that many games, and
you start to think there's no way you can lose. We have some
work to do if we want to hit the playoffs running."

First the Broncos must travel to Miami for a Monday-night game
with the Dolphins before facing the Seattle Seahawks at home in
the regular-season finale. Expect those teams and future playoff
opponents to steal a few things from the Giants' game plan, which
was to shut off many of Davis's running lanes and disrupt Elway's
rhythm by applying constant pressure up the middle. Although
weakened by a stomach virus that left him vomiting most of
Saturday night and too weak to carry his bags on Sunday morning,
Davis still ran for 147 yards and scored Denver's only touchdown.

Davis, however, conceded that New York's pressure made him worry
"more about picking up the blitz than running the ball." Even
with Davis blocking, Elway and the Broncos' receivers didn't have
time to exploit the Giants' cornerbacks, who were often left in
man-to-man coverage.

"We knew we had to take something away from them," said safety
Percy Ellsworth. "Their wide receivers are not really burners, so
our corners matched up well against them. At halftime [when New
York led 10-6] we kept telling each other, 'That's it. That was
their best shot.'"

Using a scheme they call Plastic Coverage (meaning: Stick to your
man at all times), the Giants held Denver to just one completion
longer than 17 yards. Even when the Broncos did move the ball,
they struggled inside the red zone, settling for three Jason Elam
field goals. And like that, Denver was something it hadn't been
in 363 days.

Beatable.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS BACKBREAKER Toomer (81) gave the Giants an improbable victory when he beat Tito Paul for this last-minute touchdown catch. [Tito Paul and Amani Toomer in game]
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)