SKY-HIGH AT MILE HIGH
Forty-five minutes after the Oilers had been Elwayed by the Broncos 27-21 at Mile High Stadium on Sunday, Houston defensive end Sean Jones still hadn't taken off his grass-stained and dirt-caked uniform. He was tired, and he was not happy. And like his devastated teammates, he was in no mood to tell the world what he thought of John Elway.
"It's so redundant," Jones said. "All of this is so redundant." He sighed. "I'll just say this: If you're playing the best 3 and 2 hitter in baseball, you don't run the count to 3 and 1 and give him two chances to beat you. If you're playing the best power-play team in hockey, you don't let it have a man advantage at a crucial time. If you know that Michael Jordan's got the best baseline jumper in basketball, you don't let him get the ball on the baseline late in the game. Same thing here. You don't give John Elway the ball with a chance to beat you with two minutes to go."
But the Oilers did, and Elway came through yet again. For the 13th time in his career, Elway drove Denver to the winning touchdown in the final two minutes of a game. The most stunning thing about this drive was that the Oiler defense, one of the AFC's three or four best, folded down the stretch.
With 1:56 left, Houston, having just scored a go-ahead touchdown, led 21-20. The Broncos had the ball on their 20. Oiler linebacker Eddie Robinson ran by Elway before Denver began its series and yelled, "Not this time, Elway!" (You've got to walk the walk, Eddie.)
On first down Elway stumbled while avoiding a sack and looked as if he might run. But he pulled up and threw over corner Jerry Gray to wide receiver Mark Jackson for 39 yards. The Oilers knew that the Broncos, who were now on the Houston 41, had a good chance to get a field goal if they could pick up only a few more yards, so they threw the kitchen sink at Elway on the next two plays, sending six defenders after him in trying to force a turnover or get a sack. Elway saw the enemy coming, and on the first play he dumped a perfect pass to wideout Vance Johnson, who got to the Houston 20.
In the ensuing huddle second-year back Reggie Rivers heard Elway call his number for a draw play. Rivers gulped. "I'm thinking, I don't know about this," he said after the game. "That's what the Oilers will be expecting. But I took the ball, and it looked like the Red Sea parted. What a hole! I heard John yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!" Rivers went, went, went, untouched, into the end zone.
Elway's winning drive: three plays, 80 yards, in 22 seconds.
The Oilers were finished, demoralized by Elway's heroics as well as by the thundering crowd noise at Mile High. On their final possession they couldn't hear Warren Moon's signals at the line. Imagine standing between two airport runways with no earplugs while two 757s take off simultaneously, and you have some idea what it was like to be Moon, who was 85 yards from the end zone with 88 seconds left. "It's our Heartbreak Hotel," Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
"If we're close at the end," said Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, "the altitude will get to them, John will get to them, and Mile High will get to them."
The Broncos are 5-2, but this isn't coach Dan Reeves's best team. It's not even in the top three. Strangely, the offense hasn't been pulling its weight; in fact, Denver was coming off a 34-3 blistering by the Redskins, and the Broncos had scored only two touchdowns in their previous 47 possessions. However, at least the Broncos are atop the AFC West, and unlike the Oilers they don't have the weight of another last-minute loss at Mile High on their shoulder pads. "Today, if we'd won, we would have shut up the nation and really proved something about getting to that next level," said wideout Ernest Givins of the 4-2 Oilers. "Now everyone will say, 'Same old Oilers.' "
And the same old Elway.
Twenty years after they went 17-0 in the NFL's only perfect season, the Dolphins have a good chance to go at least 9-0 this year. Miami defeated the Patriots 38-17 on Sunday to improve to 6-0 and now plays the 3-3 Colts, the 1-5 Jets and the Colts again in the next three weeks. The Dolphin teams of '72 and '92 have something in common besides the unblemished records: relatively easy schedules. During the regular season the '72 squad played two teams with winning records—the 8-6 Giants and the 8-6 Chiefs—and the combined winning percentage of Miami's 14 opponents was .367. The combined winning percentage of the Dolphins' first six victims this year is .333.
Miami fans should hold their excitement, though, until they see if the Dolphins can get through a 21-day stretch—in which they will face Buffalo, Houston, New Orleans and San Francisco—with their grip on the home field advantage in the AFC playoffs still intact. The AFC team with the home field advantage throughout the playoffs has advanced to the Super Bowl in each of the last five years, and home teams have won 13 straight AFC playoff games.
STATS OF THE WEEK
•The Browns haven't allowed a TD in their last 234 defensive plays, dating to the third quarter of their Sept. 20 game against the Raiders.
•In his last three halves the Eagles' Herschel Walker has rushed for a total of 19 yards on 13 carries.
•On Sunday in Phoenix the Cardinals, playing NFC playoff contender New Orleans, drew only 8,712 more fans than the Suns, who were playing the Boston Celtics in an NBA preseason game.
•In the four NFL games that cornerback Deion Sanders has missed, the Falcons' opponents have passed for a combined 1,429 yards and 12 touchdowns. Atlanta has lost three of those games, including Sunday's 56-17 defeat by the 49ers.
NO MORE ROAR
Barry Sanders is the best running back in the game, period. But he's averaging 3.5 yards a carry (104 rushes for 367 yards), and the Lions are 1-5 because Detroit has no quality guards in the wake of the injury that paralyzed Mike Utley last November and the death of Eric Andolsek in June. As a result of poor play by new starting guards Shawn Bouwens and Ken Dallafior, Detroit's ground game is getting hammered, and quarterback Rodney Peete is running for his life on most pass plays, as he did in a 31-14 loss to the Vikings last Thursday night.
The Lions have abandoned their early-season strategy of using two tight ends to beef up the blocking, but their return to the four-wideout sets of the Silver Stretch run-and-shoot hasn't helped Sanders. As for the theory that new offensive coordinator Dan Henning's switching between the two-tight-end formation and the Silver Stretch has confused the players, Sanders thinks that's a lot of bunk. There's just no room to run. "Formations and alignments have nothing to do with it," says Sanders. "There always has been something more to it. We're getting beat, outmanned."
"What's hurt them," one NFC Central player says, "is not playing the Silver Stretch all season. In the conventional offense you can't do the things Barry does best. In the Silver Stretch the defense has to spread out. It's easier to run in the Silver Stretch because in a conventional offense you're clogging the middle, and Barry needs to be able to run in space."
Last week Detroit dumped backup guard Mike Haight, who previously was a bust as a first-round pick of the Jets in 1986, and activated rookie Larry Tharpe from the injured-reserve list. Throw in journeyman Dennis McKnight, whom the Lions picked up in the preseason, and Detroit has four guards who, as the chart below shows, haven't made a lasting impression with anyone.
Brad Culpepper—not getting drafted high but playing here now? Heart and desire can overrule talent and experience."
Scott intercepted three Boomer Esiason passes in the Vikings' 42-7 rout of the Bengals on Sept. 27 and then stepped in front of Bear running back Neal Anderson to pick off Harbaugh's mistake the next week.
"Todd reminds me of Donnie Shell," Minnesota defensive coordinator Tony Dungy says, referring to the former Steeler strong safety. "Donnie wasn't the biggest guy, and people said he was fortunate to make the big plays he did. But when a guy hustles and plays all out, the ball's going to come to him."
When Scott was a high school defensive back in Galveston, Texas, he idolized big-hitting safeties like Browner and Ronnie Lott. He was so excited when he first met Browner and other Vikings last year that he called his parents to rave about what swell guys they all were. Says Scott, "My folks told me, 'Someday players will be just as excited to meet you.' "