Publish date:

The Winning Edge Two good defenses cancel each other out, but Terrell Davis will put Denver over the top

Cinderella wears an NFC slipper. How times have changed. For 13
years the Super Bowl was the NFC's personal playground, but the
Broncos ended all that last season. Now they're back in the big
one, ready to defend their title against a Falcons team picked
in the preseason by absolutely no one to get within sniffing
distance of the title game.

Even after they'd run up the best regular-season record in their
history (14-2) and put away the 49ers in an NFC divisional
playoff, Dan Reeves's Falcons weren't given much of a chance
against the Vikings, the top scoring machine of all time. It was
going to be Denver-Minnesota in a shootout, an orgy of points,
probably the most in Super Bowl history. Gritty, resilient
Atlanta ruined all that, clawing its way back from a 10-point
deficit in the fourth quarter, driving the length of the field in
overtime behind a quarterback limping on a sore knee.

Now the Falcons are one-touchdown underdogs to the Broncos in a
matchup in which emotions run deep. When he was the coach in
Denver, Reeves fired offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, who is
now the Denver coach. A year later John Elway helped owner Pat
Bowlen reach his decision not to renew Reeves's contract. You
won't be getting much of this bitterness in the pre-Super Bowl
quotes, but rest assured, these people have long memories.

Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, one of the handful of Broncos
players who were around in the Reeves era, apparently doesn't
share that bitterness. "I watched some of the Falcons-Vikings
game," he said on Sunday night, "and I wanted Atlanta to win. I
was pulling for Dan. He gave me an opportunity early in my
career. If not for him, I wouldn't be talking to you in this
locker room right now.

"The Falcons will be coming in with a lot of confidence. Just
look at what they accomplished. They went into a stadium and came
from behind to beat a team that had lost only one game all
season. Now they'll be going to Miami, a neutral field, 25,000 of
our fans, 25,000 of theirs, and 25,000 who are drunk and don't
care. But here's what we've got going for us--Mike Shanahan,
probably the best offensive coach in football. Give him two weeks
to prepare for somebody, and I'll take my chances."

Here's another thing the Broncos have going for them: a defense
that shuts down the run when the stakes are high. The Jets threw
a real scare into Denver. Vinny Testaverde completed his first 13
passes, throwing in a 20- to 30-mph wind that was causing Elway's
throws to nosedive on him. Sure, six turnovers cost New York, but
the thing that really did the Jets in was their inability to run
the ball--the same thing that crippled the Dolphins eight days
earlier in a divisional playoff loss to the Broncos. The rushing
stats of New York and Miami were identical: 13 carries for 14
yards. In its last four games the Denver defense allowed a total
of 88 yards on the ground and a 1.3-yard average. "We don't have
a bunch of big-name guys on our front four," 300-pound tackle
Keith Traylor says, "but we're very sound. Each week we've gotten

Atlanta likes to hammer away with 234-pound Jamal Anderson, the
NFL's second-leading rusher, behind Denver's Terrell Davis, but
on Sunday the Falcons set up the Vikings with the pass, then came
back with Anderson. That's what I think they'll do against the
Broncos. "Short passes, off a quick drop to start with, that's
Dan Reeves football," says Traylor, who began his NFL career
under Reeves. "Don't give the [pass] rush a chance to get going,
throw the out patterns to your wideouts, dump it off to a back,
mix in a run or two, pick your chances to go deep--then go."

Denver's defense has been overshadowed by the high-powered
Elway-Davis-Sharpe attack. But let's face it, there are no great
defenses this season. The most you can say about the better ones
is that they're functional and well coordinated and, in the
Broncos' case, don't make many mistakes.

At 32, strongside linebacker Bill Romanowski, named to the Pro
Bowl for the second time in three years, is enjoying his finest
season. He stays on the field in all schemes. He runs the show.
"I'm faster now and stronger, and I haven't been injured," he
says. "After 11 years in the game you learn how to study an
offense. You learn the angles."

The Broncos don't blitz a lot, but they'll take their shots,
usually lining up in a three-man rush and bringing as many as
four extra people. Such a strategy will be risky against Falcons
quarterback Chris Chandler. He'll stay in the pocket and find his
hot reads, and he isn't afraid to go downtown to wideouts Terance
Mathis or Tony Martin, provided, of course, the blitzers are
picked up.

The Atlanta defense is a different story. The Falcons don't blitz
much; on passing downs they rely on their four linemen to apply
the pressure, gradually wearing down the opposition as they did
against the Vikings. "The best front seven in football that
nobody's ever heard of," Sharpe says. "Look what they did
[against Minnesota]. They beat the most prolific scoring offense
in history. Their secondary's O.K., not great, but I'll always
take a great front seven and an O.K. secondary over the other way

The front four--Lester Archambeau and Chuck Smith outside, Travis
Hall and former Bronco Shane Dronett at the tackles--are indeed
relentless. The Falcons were second in the NFL against the run
this season, but they've never faced a back like Davis, who
killed the Jets with his cutbacks, just as he'd done to the
Dolphins a week earlier. It'll be one of the most interesting
matchups in the Super Bowl: the Falcons' front four, possibly the
best in the game, against the quickest, most mobile offensive
line, clearing the way for the league MVP and a future Hall of
Fame runner. Everybody knows the rules when playing against
Davis: Guard your lanes, don't overpursue. But when fatigue
starts to set in, he finds the creases.

Cornerback Ray Buchanan, Atlanta's best cover man, will probably
draw Denver's deep threat, Rod Smith, leaving the other corner,
Michael Booker or Ronnie Bradford (coming back from a shoulder
injury), on the possession wideout, Ed McCaffrey. Sharpe? He
could be the property of Cornelius Bennett, the Falcons' best and
swiftest cover linebacker, in some sort of combination coverage
with Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson.

"Uh-uh, don't think so," Sharpe says. "Teams usually put a
cornerback on me."

So whom does that leave on McCaffrey?

"That's where it gets interesting," Sharpe says. "That's why we
play the game."

Finally, there's Elway. He completed only 13 passes in 34
attempts on Sunday but made just enough big plays to send the
Denver faithful home happy. In last season's Super Bowl win over
the Packers, he was almost an afterthought, throwing for just 123
yards, as Davis stole the show with 157 yards rushing and three
touchdowns. Does Elway have one more 300-yard outing in him?

The feeling here is that he won't need it. I see a slugfest, not
as high scoring as some expect, with Chandler hitting the
occasional big ones but Davis controlling the tempo. Final score:
Broncos 24, Falcons 17.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER GAME BREAKER Davis, who has run for 100 yards in six straight playoff games, faces a unit that was No. 2 against the run in '98.[Terrell Davis in game]