MIAMI– Last year, it was a dive to keep his team in the game. This time, as John Elway belly-flopped into the end zone, it was a dive that said, “Game’s over. Let the party begin.”

You live long enough, you see almost everything. So here, under a blue Miami moon, were Elway and the Denver Broncos, who not so long ago were a late-January joke. And now they were sweeping up their second straight Super Bowl, and doing unto the Atlanta Falcons what had once so cruelly been done to them — namely, blowing them out.

Denver …Dynasty?

“Where do you think this puts you in history?” someone asked Elway, after he captured a second Super Bowl ring and his first-ever MVP award with 336 passing yards, one long-bomb touchdown, and another on his quarterback draw.

“History?” Elway said. “Heck. I dunno. I’m just thrilled to have hung around long enough to get a couple of these things.”

He’s got a couple now. And as the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history (38), he joins the likes of Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Joe Montana as back-to-back drivers of championship tanks.

Elway’s bomb to Rod Smith and his touchdown dive in the fourth quarter put the cork in Atlanta’s dream bottle, and cemented Elway’s place as the noted star of what may have been his final NFL game. When the gun sounded, he raised his arms over his head, his hair sweaty, his big smile ready to pop out through his mouth. He could soon join Michael Jordan as a legendary player who said good-bye on top.

If so, what better snapshot than this?

“We all want him to come back,” said Ed McCaffrey, one of his favorite receivers. “I just hope he doesn’t make his decision tonight. Because, with the way he played today, how could you imagine a better last game?”

True enough — at least on a personal note for Elway. But overall, let’s face it, this was not a great Super Bowl. It had mistakes, three missed field goals, and a decided lack of suspense. Missing was the drama of the Broncos’ win last year, their first ever, when Elway showed a career’s worth of resolve by running and diving headfirst to keep a key drive alive against the favored Green Bay Packers.

This year, the story of the game was mostly this: Denver missed field goals to give Atlanta a chance, and Atlanta threw interceptions to give it right back.

In the end, Denver took what Atlanta was giving, and de-feathered the Dirty Birds on a national stage, 34-19. The Falcons failed to score an offensive touchdown until very late. They failed to shut down Terrell Davis, which everyone knew was a key. And they had no answer for Elway, who stood in the backfield all night long, like an aging master with a paintbrush, surveying his canvas.

This is how many times Elway was sacked:

Zero.

In fact, the only time he hit the ground with the ball was when he landed in the end zone for Denver’s final touchdown. Down, as in history.

Denver …Dynasty?

One more encore?

“Was this your last game, John?” Elway was asked after the win, so many times, it sounded like a canyon echo.

“I have to think about it …” he said at one point, and then, at another,
“Winning this way makes it harder, that’s for sure . . .” and then, a few minutes later, “I worked nine months for this win, I just want to enjoy it
…” and then, a few minutes later, “This win definitely puts a chink in my thinking …”

Let me save you some suspense. He has no idea. Elway loves the game so much that any good-bye, no matter when, will be difficult. He went though this last year, and had the whole city of Denver holding its breath for months. No doubt, he will repeat the process again, although perhaps with less hang time.

Meanwhile, he is left with memories of a night that pretty much went his way from start to finish.

It wasn’t just Elway. The entire Denver team played with a patient, spread-it-around philosophy that spoke of experience. So in addition to the quarterbacking heroics, there were two interceptions and a Super Bowl-record 108 return yards by cornerback Darrien Gordon.

And there were two rushing touchdowns by Howard Griffith, a journeyman fullback who normally blocks for the great Davis.

Griffith, earlier in the week, described his low-profile contributions by saying, “Everybody has to have a niche.”

Well, get this. Denver’s niche is now as one of the great teams in football history. Sound crazy? Only five other teams in NFL history have won back-to-back Super Bowls: Green Bay, Miami, Pittsburgh, Dallas and San Francisco.

Pretty nice niche, huh?

A distracted flock

OK. About the losers, the Falcons. In truth, they probably left their best game in Minnesota — the overtime win to capture the NFC championship. There were signs that they were getting too wrapped up in the whole madness of Super bowl week — witness Ray Buchanan’s “guarantee” and the endless yapping about the Dirty Bird dance.

And then there was Eugene Robinson, who was arrested Saturday night for soliciting a prostitute who turned out to be an undercover cop. Robinson is supposed to be a leader, a man of character. You can’t believe his arrest, the night before the Super Bowl, didn’t distract the team.

“We heard about it last night,” said safety William White. “I talked to him. It was a slip on his part. But as soon as we heard it, we prayed for him and for his family. I don’t think it affected us. The game wasn’t until six o’clock. I got my eight hours of sleep.”

Maybe. But Robinson was burned more than once out there. You don’t get taken to a police station the night before the biggest game of the year and not have it affect you.

In fairness, I thought Denver had too much for the Falcons even before Robinson’s boneheaded behavior. This is a well-coached team, with a great offensive line that works miracles for its two marquee stars, Elway and Davis.

The defense was supposed to be the weak point, but it rattled Chris Chandler into three interceptions and it held Atlanta out of the end zone until it didn’t matter.

As for Elway? He may have played his last game, but he went out slinging like a freshly minted gunfighter. His passes were sharp as ever, and his relaxed control of the backfield was evident even from the farthest seats in Pro Player Stadium.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone. In fact, outside of Robinson’s behavior and the fact that Denver may now be considered a dynasty, there were no real surprises this night.

As he left the podium, someone informed Elway that, in winning the MVP award, he also got to pick up a free new car.

“I won a car?” he said.

I take it back. One more surprise.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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