The cross-pollination of the NFL is complete, which is good news
for anyone who would like to see a competitive Super Bowl more
than once a decade. The AFC is no longer a soft conference,
characterized by finesse-driven, high-scoring teams. So many
impact players and a few of the best football minds have
emigrated from the NFC that it can now be said that the two
conferences are once again peers and that the AFC is on track to
snap its 12-game losing streak in the NFL title game.
Witness the AFC's 29-20 record in interconference play, putting
the conference on the verge of only its second winning record in
the past eight years. But even more important is the gaudy 14-1
mark the five AFC teams with the best records this season--the
Broncos (12-1) and the Steelers, the Bills, the Patriots and the
Chiefs (all 9-4)--have against their NFC counterparts.
Denver, quite simply the best club in football, isn't the
hummingbird-sized team that got bashed in three Super Bowls
during the Dan Reeves era. "When we went to the Super Bowl in
the '80s, we were an average team on both sides of the ball,
with a superior quarterback," says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan,
the offensive coordinator on those teams. "Now the key word
around here is balance. We can't dominate every front seven we
play, but we can keep them honest with the running game. And
when they load up against the run, we can throw the football
against anybody. When you rely solely on the passing game,
something bad is going to happen to you in a big game--a sack, a
fumble, an interception--that wouldn't happen if you were
Great NFL teams do five things well, and the Broncos have been
adept in each of those areas.
--They run. Second-year back Terrell Davis is the league's
leading rusher, with 1,383 yards--most of them tough, inside
yards, the kind Emmitt Smith has piled up for the Cowboys'
championship teams. "It seems when I run inside, I can flick a
switch and get a couple of extra yards pretty consistently,"
Davis says. The result is a lot of second-and-short situations.
--They protect their quarterback. John Elway is only one scoring
toss shy of his club record for touchdown passes in a season,
with 25, perhaps because he has absorbed less punishment than he
has in recent years. The Broncos, who allowed an average of
almost 44 sacks in the past seven seasons, have given up only 22
this year. "I've gone up to him after games and said, 'How do
you feel?'" says Shanahan. "And he's said, 'I feel great. Nobody
touched me today.'"
--They stop the run. The Broncos lost those three Super Bowls
playing a 260-pound nosetackle, Greg Kragen, in a 3-4 alignment.
Now, in their 4-3 defense, they rotate three players, whose
average weight is 288 pounds, at the two tackle positions. It's
no coincidence that Denver leads the NFL in rushing defense,
giving up only 80.2 yards per game.
--They intimidate. During a Nov. 24 road game against the
Vikings, linebacker Bill Romanowski, an eight-year NFC veteran
who signed with Denver as a free agent in February, read a
screen pass to Minnesota back Leroy Hoard. Romanowski got a
running start, and Hoard never saw him coming. Hoard went
down--for several minutes. "His mouth was open," Romanowski
recalls. "His eyes were closed. He was out [of it]. And all our
guys were going crazy." For the first time in years, players and
coaches around the league are talking about how tough the
--They spend wisely. Instead of doling out $3.5 million a year
for one marquee free agent in the off-season, the Broncos spent
a total of $4.35 million a year, on average, for three vital
defensive parts--Romanowski, defensive end Alfred Williams and
pass-rushing tackle Jumpy Geathers. Romanowski is the leader of
the defense, Williams leads the NFL in sacks, and Geathers can
collapse the pocket.
Many of the players and ideas influencing the AFC were hatched
in the NFC. "When you look around the AFC now, you see offenses
and special teams that are so much tougher," says Oilers
executive vice president and general manager Floyd Reese. "You
see so many good young backs, and you hear [AFC] people saying
what NFC teams said for years: You've got to get backs you can
count on to carry out your plan consistently."
Here are two ways in which other AFC teams have taken the same
approach as the Broncos and finally caught up with the NFC.
1) They took some of the offensive load off the quarterback. The
Broncos, the Bills and the Dolphins are 0-8 in the Super Bowl
since the famous quarterback draft of 1983 put Elway in Denver,
Jim Kelly in Buffalo and Dan Marino in Miami. But other AFC
teams tried to copy those teams' aerial attacks. The
sophisticated passing games clicked when AFC teams played one
another, but they were no match for the more physical NFC clubs.
"When you've got a great quarterback, as a coach you sometimes
say to yourself, The quarterback will bail us out," says former
Giants quarterback Phil Simms. "You wait for that guy to make
plays rather than developing other ways to make them."
As great as Elway has been through the years, the Broncos are on
the verge of their best season ever largely because of Davis.
Miami and New England have burgeoning franchise backs in Karim
Abdul-Jabbar and Curtis Martin, respectively. Pittsburgh's most
important player is running back Jerome Bettis, and Buffalo's
two-headed back (Thurman Thomas and Darick Holmes) is averaging
111 yards per game.
2) Free agency has spread the talent around. The Bills are
allowing a stingy 95 rushing yards per game, thanks largely to
325-pound nosetackle Ted Washington, who began his career with
the 49ers, and linebackers Bryce Paup and Chris Spielman,
free-agent acquisitions from the Packers and the Lions,
respectively. The Steelers stole Bettis from the Rams in a
draft-day trade. And 13 players on Denver's roster have NFC
The architects of NFC champions have crossed over to the AFC:
general manager Bobby Beathard (Redskins to Chargers) and
coaches Bill Parcells (Giants to Patriots) and Jimmy Johnson
(Cowboys to Dolphins). Even Shanahan served for three years as
offensive coordinator with the 49ers between stints in Denver.
All of this is not to say that the best AFC teams are without
problems. Take the Broncos: Their cornerbacks get burned
occasionally, and the left side of the offensive line--guard
Mark Schlereth (whose left knee has been surgically repaired
nine times) and tackle Gary Zimmerman (out for two weeks
following arthroscopic shoulder surgery on Monday)--is beat up.
Nevertheless, by virtue of its 34-7 win over the Seahawks on
Sunday, Denver has already clinched home field advantage
throughout the AFC playoffs, and their shortcomings are dwarfed
by those of the rest of the contenders in either conference.
If the Broncos make their fifth Super Bowl appearance on Jan. 26
in New Orleans, they could end their own history of title-game
misery as well as the AFC's.
You have to applaud Eagles wide receiver Irving Fryar, who had
six catches on Sunday to pass Raymond Berry and move into 12th
place on the NFL's alltime reception list, with 636 catches.
Berry was the Patriots' coach for six of the troubled and
underachieving Fryar's nine seasons in New England. Now 34 and
an ordained minister, Fryar said on Sunday, "What I learned from
Raymond as a player is a big part of why I passed him on the
list. I owe him a lot of gratitude."...Even if it means
releasing Warren Moon, the Vikings have decided to try to
re-sign fifth-year quarterback Brad Johnson, who has stepped in
for the injured Moon and won three of his four starts, including
a 41-17 win over the Cardinals on Sunday in which he threw four
TD passes. The Vikings hope the 40-year-old Moon, who has missed
four games this season because of assorted injuries, will
renegotiate a contract that calls for him to get $4.3 million in
1997, and become an $800,000-a-year backup....Good teams make
good off-season decisions: The Packers' signing of return man
Desmond Howard to a one-year, $300,000 contract was such a move.
Howard has run back two punts for touchdowns this season,
including a 75-yarder on Sunday that broke a 7-7 third-quarter
tie with the Bears and started Green Bay on its way to a 28-17
win....It's prime time for the Patriots, who in four seasons
under Bill Parcells are a combined 20-27 before Dec. 1 and 9-4
in December, including Sunday night's 45-7 win in San Diego.
Some of the credit for New England's success late in the year
goes to strength and conditioning coach Johnny Parker. When he
was on Parcells's staff in New York, Parker's intense
"voluntary" off-season regimen paid off for the Giants' players
late in their two Super Bowl-winning campaigns. "New York's key
guys were healthy when they won late in the year," says former
Patriots linebacker Andre Tippett, now the club's director of
player resources. "It's the same with us now."...Why would any
proven NFL coach want the Giants job--if Dan Reeves does not
return in 1997--when 33 players, including 20 starters, on a 5-8
team are already signed for next year, and when personnel
decisions are made by a front office with virtual lifetime job
THE END ZONE
Next Sunday will be a big day for Bill Parcells. His Patriots
will try to take another step toward their first AFC East title
in 10 years in a 4 p.m. home game against the Jets. On the same
afternoon, at Aqueduct Race Track in New York City, the prize
3-year-old filly Parcells owns a piece of will try to win for
the third time in 10 starts this year. The horse's name: Sunday
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER One of the keys to a championship is stopping the run, and no team stacks up better than the Broncos. [Denver Broncos players and San Diego Charger player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Parcells is trying to become the first coach to win a Super Bowl with an NFC team and an AFC team. [Bill Parcells]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [Thurman Thomas and New England Patriot player in game]
LET'S GET PHYSICAL
There's no secret to the NFC's 12-game winning streak in the
Super Bowl: Those victorious teams were born to run. Until the
Steelers outrushed the Cowboys in last season's championship
game, the NFC team had outgained its opponent on the ground in
each of those wins--and by 50 or more yards on eight occasions.
Now, however, the AFC's ability to run the ball is the reason
that streak may end on Jan. 26 in New Orleans. Look at the AFC
division leaders: The Broncos have Terrell Davis, who leads the
NFL with 1,383 rushing yards; the Steelers have Jerome Bettis,
who is second (1,341); the Bills have the one-two punch of
Thurman Thomas (right) and Darick Holmes, who have combined for
1,447 yards; and the Patriots have Curtis Martin, who leads the
AFC with 13 rushing touchdowns. Here's a running report of the
last 12 Super Bowls.
Season Super Bowl Score Rushing Winner
1984 49ers 38, Dolphins 16 49ers 211-25
1985 Bears 46, Patriots 10 Bears 167-7
1986 Giants 39, Broncos 20 Giants 136-52
1987 Redskins 42, Broncos 10 Redskins 280-97
1988 49ers 20, Bengals 16 49ers 111-106
1989 49ers 55, Broncos 10 49ers 144-64
1990 Giants 20, Bills 19 Giants 172-166
1991 Redskins 37, Bills 24 Redskins 125-43
1992 Cowboys 52, Bills 17 Cowboys 137-108
1993 Cowboys 30, Bills 13 Cowboys 137-87
1994 49ers 49, Chargers 26 49ers 133-67
1995 Cowboys 27, Steelers 17 Steelers 103-56
Average score: NFC 38, AFC 17. Average rushing yards: NFC 151,