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PRO FOOTBALL '86 : The AFC: Broncos Have Not Only Elway, but a Rugged Defense

September 06, 1986|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

In the week of the opening games, two things can be said about pro football's American Conference:

--For the second time in 20 years and the first time since the 1960s, it has cornered most of the game's good young quarterbacks.

--One of these is John Elway, who in his fourth National Football League campaign seems to have enough team around him--and seems finally mature enough himself--to lead the Denver Broncos into the Super Bowl.

As usual, the Broncos' worst problems are expected from the teams in their own division, the consistently competitive AFC West. Their trouble will start Sunday in the Raider-Bronco opener at Denver, since the Raiders are a team that can make big trouble.

But for the pull of a 16-game regular season, the Broncos appear to have the right equipment. Their two most significant assets are effective quarterbacking and a formidable defense, which are two of the three things that determine most races in football. The other is injuries.

In the AFC this year, the teams that match the Broncos at quarterback don't quite measure up defensively. And those with a similarly effective defense don't quite match them at quarterback.

At the moment, the AFC can be described as a conference on the rise. Though it has won only one of the last five Super Bowls, it is better positioned than the NFC for what's left of the decade.

For, curiously, AFC teams have signed almost all of the NFL's most promising young quarterbacks.

All six members of the famous quarterback class of 1983 are in the AFC. And four are in one division, the AFC East. They are Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins, Tony Eason of the New England Patriots, Ken O'Brien of the New York Jets and, now, Jim Kelly of the Buffalo Bills.

The two others are in the AFC West, Elway and Todd Blackledge of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Even the AFC Central has aggressively pursued strong-armed young quarterbacks. At Cleveland and Cincinnati, Bernie Kosar of the Browns and Boomer Esiason of the Bengals seem promising if inexperienced. At Houston, Warren Moon of the Oilers is showing both promise and poise.

The NFL's quarterback model is also in the AFC. He is Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers.

Against this array of talent, the NFC can bring up Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers but not too many potentially great young quarterbacks. There is Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears, who isn't universally admired by his peers. There is Jay Schroeder of the Washington Redskins, who is underexperienced. And there are a few fans for Phil Simms of the New York Giants.

Some of the NFC's other young quarterbacks are clearly struggling. Neil Lomax of the St. Louis Cardinals has blown hot and cold. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have benched Steve Young. And the New Orleans Saints have yet to march in with a ringing endorsement for Bobby Hebert.

On Jan. 12, 1969, quarterback Joe Namath of the New York Jets ended the myth of NFC (NFL) superiority and launched the AFC's long run as pro football's dominant conference.

In the subsequent 12 years, until 1982, the Dallas Cowboys were the only NFC club strong enough at quarterback and on defense to win the Super Bowl.

The Roger Staubach teams were the best Tom Landry has had at Dallas, but otherwise the AFC's edge on defense and at quarterback with Bob Griese, Terry Bradshaw and others paid off year after year after year.

Although NFC teams made a comeback in the early 1980s, the question now is how long they can sustain the rally when, again, the AFC has a quarterback corner.

Of the AFC's top teams, the Raiders alone are minus an All-Pro candidate at that position.

The top five:

1. DENVER BRONCOS

It is hardly the best of news for football fans that NFL teams keep putting so much of their time and energy into defense. Most spectators aren't there to see that. But the coaches are, and, under Dan Reeves, the Broncos were 24-8 in 1984-85.

Denver is a typical NFL defensive power with such specialists as Karl Mecklenburg and such quarterback hunters as Rulon Jones. What lifts this team into a higher class is John Elway, a passer who also runs with distinction.

2. MIAMI DOLPHINS

Coach Don Shula has even more quarterbacking but less defense--unless Hugh Green and USFL import John Corker make a vital defensive impact. This is a journeyman team but for four people: Dan Marino, Mark Clayton, Mark Duper, and Shula.

Marino is one of the NFL's few quarterbacks with an arm that's quick enough to make today's belligerent pass rushers cry. He and his coach found the one way to beat Chicago last year, going for the big play on every down.

3. NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Under Coach Raymond Berry, this is the NFL's strangest good team, in part because Tony Eason is the strangest good quarterback. He has the accuracy and touch of the game's best passers--but when you think of pirate captains like Bobby Layne, he's just the opposite of them.

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