Friday, January 31, 2014

Elway's Swan Song

When the Broncos enter New York's MetLife Stadium for the Super Bowl two days from now, it will be the franchise's seventh appearance in the big game.

For awhile, the Broncos' record for Super Bowl futility was matched only by the Minnesota Vikings. For nearly eight years, both stood at 0–4. In the mid–1990s, the Bills joined them.

But then the Broncos broke the deadlock with a dramatic, last–minute triumph in Super Bowl XXXII, and then Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway led the Broncos to a second consecutive championship 15 years ago today with a more comfortable 34–19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Consequently, the Broncos will be going into Sunday's game with a two–game Super Bowl winning streak.

Elway, now the executive vice president of football operations for the Broncos, was named the game's Most Valuable Player after completing 18 of 29 passes for 336 yards and a touchdown, but I always thought the MVP should have been shared by the Denver defense. In the first half, the Denver defenders stuffed Atlanta when the Falcons went for it on fourth–and–one, then forced the Falcons to attempt a field goal from 26 yards out (the Falcons missed the attempt).

It was after that missed field goal that Elway hit Rod Smith for an 80–yard touchdown strike.

In the second half, Denver intercepted three Atlanta passes, snuffing out drives that appeared to be headed for scores of some kind. If they had resulted in scores, the Falcons would have at least beaten the spread if not the Broncos.

When I was growing up, the Falcons were seen as an expansion team that seldom made the playoffs and even more rarely accomplished anything when they got there. But the 1998 season was an exception. The Falcons had the fourth–best offense in the entire NFL that year, and it led them to a 14–2 record. In fact, they had only lost once since dropping the season opener at San Francisco.

In spite of their excellent record, though, the Falcons had to travel to the NFC Championship, which was in Minnesota in January 1999. The Vikings were 15–1 and favored to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than 20 years, but the Falcons beat them in overtime.

Atlanta had met every challenge, but the Falcons still came into the Super Bowl as 7½–point underdogs. Turned out that was optimistic.

I've heard it speculated that, if the Broncos win on Sunday, Peyton Manning (who was a rookie during the 1998 season and will be 38 in March) will retire, but I think it is just as likely that Manning will stay on for another year and, like Elway, try to retire as a two–time defending Super Bowl champion. He might also have his second — or even his third — Super Bowl MVP by that time.

And why shouldn't he think he could do it? Under Manning's on–field leadership, the Broncos were 13–3 and had the top–rated offense in the NFL in 2013. If he returns for another season next fall, he will be the same age as Elway was when he played in Super Bowl XXXIII 15 years ago today.

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