SAN DIEGO — Well, if the pope can visit Cuba, the Unabomber can confess, and the president can be accused of making whoopee with an intern, I guess the AFC can win a Super Bowl.
Debunked. Dethroned. Demystified. No more NFC domination. No more annual blowouts. Only a game in which John Elway ran better than he passed, in which Brett Favre couldn’t make a crucial wide-open completion, in which a wild-card team won the championship and a sixth-round draft choice who once dreamed of making the practice squad instead won the MVP award — only a game which could give all that could give you this: a major upset, and maybe the best Super Bowl ever.
The following is not a typo: Denver 31, Green Bay 24.
“I have only four words!” screamed an elated Pat Bowlen, the owner of the Broncos, as he stood on the victory stand with the trophy. He turned to the player on his left and hollered, “THIS …ONE’S …FOR …JOHN! …
And the man who was the subplot of this game, the man even Green Bay fans were privately rooting for, shook a grateful fist at the adoring crowd and the world at large. This is why we keep coming back to Super Bowls — despite the awful blowouts and ludicrous hype — because every once in a while, you get a final snapshot like this, the image of Elway, the longest-suffering quarterback of the longest-suffering conference, leaping onto the field like a child leaping down the Christmas steps after Favre’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
How much of a hurry were AFC fans in for this moment? The last 18 seconds of the game ticked off with the field already full of screaming and dancing Broncos boosters. Moments later, the fireworks exploded, the confetti shot into the air, and you half expected the Red Sea to part.
Why not? Was this not a semi-miraculous performance by the Broncos, a 12-point underdog? It was a smart game, won by running and blocking and opportune defense. Denver took an early lead, let Green Bay back in, but didn’t fold the tent as AFC teams have done before.
Instead, the Broncos ate the clock, made fewer mistakes, and drove the field when they had to — at the end.
“We shocked the world, but we didn’t shock the Denver Broncos!” yelled tight end Shannon Sharpe. “We knew we could do this!”
Plenty of rehearsal
In the rush of well-wishers after the game, Elway tried to find his composure.
“I’ve done a lot of rehearsing for this game,” he admitted. No quarterback had won more regular-season games. But only one, Jim Kelly, had ever lost more Super Bowls. Elway was not eager to tie him.
And yet, such is his maturity, that on Sunday, in his most memorable game, Elway was more a manager than a star player. He completed just 12 passes for 123 yards and no touchdowns. In years past, that was a first quarter for this guy.
But Elway and his coaches knew the way to beat Green Bay was to run, run, run, keep the ball away from Favre, and wear out the strong, but susceptible, Packers defensive line. That they did. By the end, the Pack was gasping for air, and big man Gilbert Brown, all 370 pounds, was as useless as a flat tire.
Truth be told, Elway’s shining moment came not on a pass, but on a run. In the third quarter, with the score tied, Elway took a third-down snap, found no one open, faked, then scrambled, then committed. He is 37 years old, and the legs aren’t supposed to work the way they used to, but in moments of victory, all athletes are young again. Elway chugged toward the first-down marker, then did the only thing he could do to get it. He leapt into the air, and got smacked by three Green Bay defenders.
But when he landed, he had a first-and-goal, and if you ask me, that was the play that shut the door on the Green Bay dominance. In all their other wins, the opponent eventually got out of the Packers’ way, bowing to their aura of defending champions.
The Broncos weren’t moving. Like Elway, they were ready to fly in, headfirst.
“Did you ever wonder if this moment would come?” someone asked Elway.
“You always wonder if you’re gonna run out of years,” he admitted. “But I’m so proud of this team, the way we came together, doing it the hard way. We finally got one, and this is really …neat.”
Well, he did play college football in California.
Davis is the story
Now, if Elway was the story, Terrell Davis was the star. If you’re wondering how a guy who missed the second quarter with a migraine could wind up with 157 yards and three touchdowns, well, you haven’t been following his story.
“I’m numb right now,” said Davis, accepting his MVP award. Naturally.
Here’s a guy who played only two years of high school football, who did his first college stint at lowly Long Beach State, where he had to pay for his own cleats and gloves. Here’s a guy who didn’t even bother to watch the NFL draft his senior year, and when he was selected, in the sixth round, his biggest dream was to someday play special teams.
Instead, Davis has ascended like a helium balloon. In three years, he has became the premier running back in the AFC, and he already has one more ring than Barry Sanders.
“I’m not surprised we won,” Davis said after contributing to the end of the NFC’s 13-year domination. “People watch too much TV. They listen to too many experts. They were convinced we were the weaker team. But I knew otherwise.”
Well, maybe what he knew — and what most of us missed — was the domination of the Denver offensive line. For if Elway was the story and Davis the star, then the offensive line was the reason for this victory. It opened holes the size of transit tunnels. It plowed into the Packers and froze them in their tracks. Reggie White might as well have been absent. Brown was a large mound-of-no-rebound. Consider this: Against a supposedly tenacious defense, the Broncos’ line did not allow a single sack and rarely permitted Davis to be touched in the backfield.
“We sat listening to how good Green Bay was for two weeks, and we didn’t say anything,” said Denver tackle Gary Zimmerman. “We got so sick of it, our stomachs were turning.’
Or, as the ever-loquacious Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski put it: “We wanted to puke.”
Party on, dudes
Well, take it easy, Broncos. You can party on, and leave the puking to the Packers, who will no doubt want to take a few key plays back when they see the tapes of this one. Favre, especially, would like to have back his first-quarter interception, which led to a Broncos touchdown; his second-quarter fumble, which led to a Denver field goal; and his final drive, with 99 seconds left, in which he moved the Packers 49 yards, but failed to complete his last three passes, one of which was to a wide-open Antonio Freeman. Favre had to whip the ball back across his body — a pass he is capable of making, but not this time.
And then, on the final Green Bay snap of the 1997-98 season, Favre chose his favorite receiver, Mark Chmura, but he didn’t get him the ball. The pass was broken up by linebacker John Mobley, the ball hit the turf, and an avalanche began in the Rocky Mountains.
“We used too much energy in coming back to tie it,” said Mike Holmgren, the Green Bay coach. “It was like a basketball game. We didn’t have anything left at the end.
“I want to add that I personally have always been a John Elway fan. I’ve always wanted him to win one. I just wish it wasn’t against us.”
Well, if the streak had to end, even NFC diehards will admit this was a great way to go. A wonderfully entertaining game, an MVP who no longer has to pay for his own equipment, and an aging veteran hero who, in previous Super Bowl defeats, seemed to wear all the AFC’s slings and arrows in his creased forehead and squinted eyes.
“This is 10 times better than I ever imagined it would be,” Elway said outside the Broncos’ locker room. “You do get tired of being the guy who didn’t win the big game. All the things we’ve been answering questions for, for umpteen years, have been finally answered.”
Way to go.
Now, do you have any answers for this Clinton mess? …
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.