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Back In Stride The Broncos showed their old Super Bowl form--and some new wrinkles--in a runaway win over the Dolphins

John Elway hurt all over, but it was a good pain. The Denver
Broncos quarterback lay on a massage table last Thursday, two
days before a rematch with the Miami Dolphins in an AFC
divisional playoff at Mile High Stadium, and relived the 31-21
pounding he and his team had absorbed at the hands of the
Dolphins on Dec. 21. While Steve the masseur tried to grind out
the kinks, the 38-year-old Elway smiled blissfully and embraced
the second chance. "It's going to be a little bit different this
time," he promised. "This time they'll see everything we've got
in our arsenal. Plus, we're pissed. It's funny how things work
out: For us, the focus isn't so much that it's a playoff game as
it is that Miami embarrassed us three weeks ago."

Even before the rubdown Elway was as relaxed as a quarterback
could hope to be before facing the defense that gave up the
fewest points in the NFL this season. He, his teammates and
especially Broncos coach Mike Shanahan carried a quiet
confidence that belied their lackluster performance late in the
regular season. After winning their first 13 games and clinching
home field advantage, the defending Super Bowl champions
stumbled to the finish line with consecutive losses to the New
York Giants and the Dolphins, followed by a ho-hum victory over
the Seattle Seahawks. "We told ourselves we had to win those
last three games," Elway said, "but no matter how hard you try
to convince yourself, your subconscious will overrule."

Last Saturday the Broncos were unconscious in thrashing the
Dolphins 38-3, ending all suspense by stringing together
touchdown drives of 92, 66 and 87 yards on their first three
possessions. In the process Shanahan unveiled an elaborate
offensive smorgasbord that confused the Dolphins and undoubtedly
complicated the workweek of New York Jets coach Bill Parcells,
whose team travels to Mile High for next Sunday's AFC
Championship Game.

When the Broncos' offensive players received their play sheets
on the Tuesday before the rematch with Miami, they ogled a game
plan that had nearly twice as many plays as the watered-down
blueprint Shanahan had used for the regular-season meeting.
Thanks to a brainstorm that he had while watching tape of Miami
shutting down halfback Terrell Davis, who gained a season-low 29
yards on 16 carries, Shanahan added a wrinkle designed to
jump-start the Denver running game: Trey Dolphin Right, a
formation in which second-year tackle Matt Lepsis was inserted
as an extra blocker between right tackle Harry Swayne and tight
end Shannon Sharpe. The unbalanced line helped Denver seal off
Miami All-Pro middle linebacker Zach Thomas and created ample
running room for Davis, who was named the league's MVP before
the game and then rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns on 21
carries in slightly more than three quarters of work.

"Mike Shanahan is a genius," Davis said afterward. "He has a
knack for putting you in the best situations possible and really
taking what the defense gives you. That formation opened up some
wide holes for us, especially on the cutback."

Of course, creating cutback options for the sweet-stepping Davis
is like generating talk-back opportunities for Jerry Springer,
who schmoozed with several Broncos in the locker room after the
game. At one point Springer drifted toward the Denver offensive
linemen, and if you know anything about their personal quirks,
that's exactly where he belongs. Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen is a
serial vomiter, while left guard Mark (Stink) Schlereth
frequently relieves himself in his uniform pants during games.

When it comes to the nasty work they do in the trenches,
however, Denver's offensive linemen are all business. During
their four-game run through the playoffs last season, the
Broncos averaged 187 yards rushing. This season, despite the
retirement of All-Pro left tackle Gary Zimmerman and the
free-agent departure of right guard Brian Habib, the line has
been just as dominant: Witness Davis's 2,000-yard season. Even
after left tackle Tony Jones left Saturday's game with a twisted
right knee midway through the second quarter, the Broncos hardly
missed a beat. With Lepsis, a free-agent signee out of Colorado
in '97, taking over at right tackle and Swayne shifting to the
left side, the Broncos kept pounding a Dolphins front depleted
by the absence of injured standouts Jason Taylor and Tim Bowens.
All told, Denver ran for 250 yards, averaging a robust 6.6 yards
per carry.

Elway and Co. toyed with the Dolphins. Holding a 14-3
second-quarter lead and facing fourth-and-one at the Miami 38,
Shanahan spread the defense by putting Elway in the shotgun with
an empty backfield. The quarterback rolled right and fired a
16-yard pass to wideout Rod Smith. On third-and-two in the third
quarter Elway again lined up in the shotgun, watched his
receivers scatter and sneaked around left end for 11 yards. "The
Dolphins had never seen some of that stuff, and they were
yelling at each other," Nalen said. "They didn't know what was
going on."

Defensively, the Broncos this time were far more aggressive
against Dan Marino, who had burned them for 355 passing yards
and four touchdowns in the first meeting. Foiled in his quest to
duplicate what Elway did last season--cap a record-setting
career with a Super Bowl ring--Marino, 37, still has reason to
be upbeat. The Dolphins will have plenty of cap money to spend
this off-season in their quest to surround Marino with a more
potent offensive cast, a process coach Jimmy Johnson seemed
resigned to beginning even before the game. "We're like a
walking MASH unit," Johnson complained after arriving at the
Dolphins' hotel last Friday. "If we win, it will be amazing. But
this off-season we'll go after it."

Barring a stunning development, there will be no next year for
Elway, meaning Sunday's game against the Jets will be his Mile
High goodbye. While refraining from an official announcement for
fear of distracting his teammates, Elway, as he lay on the
massage table last Thursday, sounded like a man with no plans to
play next season. "My body is just so beaten down," he said,
grimacing as the masseur worked on his neck. "If they could just
make it flag football for me, maybe I'd give it a go."

That's a wrinkle even Shanahan won't be able to install. So sit
back, relax and enjoy Elway while you can.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Value added Davis, the league's MVP, ran for 199 yards and two touchdowns against the Dolphins' depleted defense. [Terrell Davis in game]