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Original Issue

AFC west

The Denver Broncos didn't win the Super Bowl when they had the Orange Crush defense. They didn't win it when they had the Three Amigos. But now, stripped of nicknames, still seeking an identity, they are our pick to win Super Bowl XXVII. How come? Three reasons.

First, there's the When in Doubt theory. When in doubt, when you can't quite figure how the races are going to go, pick the team that always manages to slop in there. Washington's a When in Doubt team. So is Denver.

Then, there's the They're Not What You Think They Are theory. Picture the Broncos, and what comes to mind? Soft defense, John Elway throwing for a million yards. Uh-uh. They're not like that. Last year, with people like nosetackle Greg Kragen and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and safety Steve Atwater and rookie linebacker Mike Croel hustling their fannies off, Denver had a tenacious, aggressive defense that was ranked first in the AFC. On offense they were one of the handful of teams that called more running than passing plays. Coach Dan Reeves is from the old Tom Landry school: You don't get anyplace if you can't run the ball. Gaston Green, the recently traded Bobby Humphrey, Sammy Winder in the old days—plug in any back, and the Broncos seem to find a way to make the ground game go.

Finally, the road to the Super Bowl runs through Buffalo, and Denver is one team that knows how to play the Bills. The Broncos swarmed all over them in the AFC Championship Game last season, making Jim Kelly's life miserable, and they would have beaten the Bills but for three missed field goals and a deflected pass that Buffalo intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Now Denver is the hungry team, possessing some of the fire that might have gone out of Buffalo.

Let's get one thing straight right away. There is no quarterback controversy on the Los Angeles Raiders. Al Davis, the top guy, says so. Art Shell, the coach, says so. Mike White, the quarterback coach, says so. "Jay Schroeder's the guy," White says. "It's all settled."

O.K., now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the quarterback controversy. Schroeder throws the high hard one, sometimes out of the strike zone. Todd Marinovich is the junkball pitcher—soft stuff, with control. When Schroeder went down with ankle injuries, Marinovich came in and dazzled Kansas City in the season finale with his assortment of loopers and bloopers, pitching three TD passes with no interceptions.

A week later, in the first round of the playoffs, the Chiefs had their timing down, and they slammed Marinovich's soft stuff into the seats—four interceptions for K.C. in its 10-6 victory. The kid was a rookie. What the hell....

The offensive unit seems to have a spark when Marinovich is in there. A lot of guys are pulling for him. It's a nagging concern for the coaches, and the party line is, We're so strong in other areas that we don't have to put the burden on the quarterback. Maybe they're right. The Raiders have always been serious about their running game.

The offensive linemen have been packing on the weight, getting ready for the big push. Center Don Mosebar and left guard Steve Wisniewski have bulked up to more than 300 pounds. The path through the Raider backfield has been a route from stardom to oblivion, with Greg Bell and Roger Craig both making the trip in the last few years. Now the Raiders have Eric Dickerson. But, remember, it's always Marcus Allen who gets the tough yards.

The Kansas City Chiefs have taken the first big step, from dogs of the division to solid playoff team. But as they have found out, the next step is harder. One dimension of their game was lacking last season: the ability to go deep.

Last year the clock finally ran out on 37-year-old Steve DeBerg, who was coming off a miraculous 1990 season. He just couldn't get that oomph on his passes. The Chiefs' leading receiver, Robb Thomas, with 43 catches, ranked 66th in the NFL. In the playoffs Buffalo crowded in close to stop K.C.'s big-hammer ground game and jammed the wideouts at the line, defying the Chiefs to go deep. The season was over. Time for a change.

In came 33-year-old Dave Krieg, a Plan B signee from Seattle, to play quarterback. But where are the wideouts? The only receiver who can get deep is Tim Barnett, unless you count 30-year-old Stephone Paige, who's coming back from knee surgery. Clearly a trade is needed. It's time to dip into that vast well of backfield talent—Christian Okoye, Barry Word, Harvey Williams, Kimble Anders, Todd McNair—and trade somebody to get a flier. Don't bet they won't.

Since Alex Spanos acquired the team in 1984, the San Diego Chargers have had one winning record, in the strike season of 1987, and even that team lost its last six games. There have been three general managers in that time, and four coaches, the latest being Bobby Ross, who turned the Georgia Tech program around. It's an organization run by fear and impatience. Even Bobby Beathard, in his third year as general manager, hasn't been able to make a dent. He won't this year, either.

San Diego can punish a soft defense with its big backs, Marion Butts and Rod Bernstine. They can, on occasion, rise up and slop opposing runners. But when it's time to spread the formation, they're in trouble—on both sides of the ball.

Their quarterback is much-traveled Bob Gagliano, who is playing with his fifth pro team in eight years. He beat out Stan Humphries, a Redskin reject who was picked up in a trade when John Friesz went out for the year with a knee injury in a preseason game. Aside from Ross, the most interesting newcomer is another coach: Bill Arnsparger, the architect of Don Shula's 53-Defense, who, like an old war-horse hearing that final bugle, cast off five years as a college administrator and returned to combat. He'll coach the defense. Good luck.

Ken Behring, the Seattle Seahawks' owner, wanted coach Chuck Knox to play rookie quarterback Dan McGwire last year. Knox stuck with Dave Krieg. Behring wanted more flash in the offense. Knox said, Thanks, but I'll do it my way. Two weeks after the '91 season, Knox was on his way to Anaheim to coach the Rams. Seattle's new coach is Tom Flores, the team's president and someone who knows how to get along with the owner.

Does this mean that McGwire, who threw seven passes last year, is the starting quarterback? No, the job went to Kelly Stouffer, who threw 15 passes in '91.

The defense will be solid again because the coach, Tom Catlin, is one of the best in the business and because he's blessed with two of the finest, and most underrated, defensive backs in football—corner Dwayne Harper and free safety Eugene Robinson. If ex-Viking Keith Millard ever recovers from his knee injuries and regains any of his old pass-rushing magic, the defense will be even better.




The Broncos, who have had great success running the football, gave it to Green last season for 1,037 yards.



DIVISION CHAMPIONS: N.Y. Jets (10-6), Houston (11-5), Denver (11-5)
WILD-CARD TEAMS: Buffalo (10-6), L.A. Raiders (11-5), Kansas City (10-6)
FIRST-ROUND PLAYOFFS: Buffalo beats Raiders, Jets beat Kansas City
SECOND-ROUND PLAYOFFS: Denver beats Buffalo, Jets beat Houston
AFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Denver beats Jets


DIVISION CHAMPIONS: Dallas (10-6), Chicago (11-5), San Francisco (13-3)
WILD-CARD TEAMS: Washington (10-6), Philadelphia (9-7), Detroit (9-7)
FIRST-ROUND PLAYOFFS: Washington beats Philadelphia, Dallas beats Detroit
SECOND-ROUND PLAYOFFS: Dallas beats Chicago, San Francisco beats Washington
NFC CHAMPIONSHIP: Dallas beats San Francisco

SUPER BOWL XXVII: Denver 24, Dallas 17