Here's a clue to Super Bowl XXI: The New York Giants have improved a great deal more than the Denver Broncos.
--Since Nov. 23, when the Giants edged Denver in New Jersey, 19-16, the Broncos have been a struggling winner when they weren't losing.
--At the same time, with a much better quarterback than they had earlier in the season, the Giants have impressively won them all.
The quarterback has the same name, Phil Simms, but he was a different and better player in the last four weeks of the regular season than he was in the first 12.
In fact, no quarterback in the league has performed more effectively than Simms since the second half of the Giants' Monday night game in San Francisco Dec. 1--just a week after his modest effort against Denver.
It was confidence that Simms found in San Francisco. Previously, the Giants, relying on their ground game, had seemed afraid to let their quarterback throw except in safe passing situations.
But at Candlestick Park, with the Giants losing, 17-0, at halftime, the coaches were out of options. They asked him to please win it with his arm. He did, outscoring the 49ers in the second half, 21-0. And the Giants have been in a high-scoring mode ever since.
They had been in a different mode earlier in the season. After beating Denver, the Giants could look back on a season in which they had narrowly won low-scoring games from mostly mediocre teams--by 3 points over Philadelphia, by 2 over Minnesota, by 3 over Dallas, by 7 over St. Louis, by 3 over New Orleans.
Since unleashing their underrated quarterback, the Giants have been winning by rout scores, including 49-3 over the 49ers this month.
All Simms had to do was start throwing, for he's both physically and psychologically rugged. He's a fighter who doesn't fold when hurt, when behind, or when he gets off a blooper.
In Pasadena Sunday, if Simms plays as well as he has since Dec. 1, the Giants can be expected to win handily regardless of how much John Elway accomplishes for Denver.
Giant Offense: One difference between these opponents, offensively, is that the Broncos have one ace, Elway, and the Giants three, Simms, Joe Morris and Mark Bavaro.
Though he stands 5 feet 7, Morris should be considered a big back. He runs the ball like any of the league's other good big backs--such as Eric Dickerson. The Morris height seems to be more help than hindrance, enabling him to hide before he hits.
At tight end, Bavaro is the league's best combination blocker/catcher/runner.
In the offensive line and at wide receiver, however, most of the Giants are like most of the Broncos--overachievers.
They didn't come highly recommended.
For example, Giant tackle Brad Benson was cut by New England. Guard Chris Godfrey is a converted defensive lineman. In the NFL, no one cried when center Bart Oates chose the USFL first.
At times, the hard-blocking New York fullback, Maurice Carthon, is all that's kept this team going.
The truth is that the Giants were being carried by their defense until Dec. 1, the night Simms became a a major factor.
Until then, they didn't really have an NFL offense. The statistics:
--At halftime in San Francisco, Simms had thrown 13 touchdown passes in 13 games and 18 interceptions.
--In his last six games--including the January playoffs--there have been 13 more Simms touchdown passes and only 4 interceptions.
In other words, you don't look at Simms and say, here's a guy who always throws interceptions (a total of 22 in the regular season to 21 touchdown passes). Rather, here's a guy who will beat Elway--provided he plays the way he played in the Giants' last six games.
Bronco Defense: This isn't the kind of defensive team that usually wins Super Bowls. This one is small, quick and nifty--a slick little defense--which doesn't fit the Super Bowl stereotype: Big and overpowering.
Can slick little defensive players win this Super Bowl?
They have two things going for them. The players they've got to beat, Simms and Morris, aren't very big themselves. And Denver's coaching is unique.
The defensive coordinator, Joe Collier, who's been there so long that he has handpicked one or two of Denver's head coaches himself, specializes in surprise defenses.
Collier's is the only team that has held the Giants without a touchdown this season, and he did it with a continuous, baffling mix of defensive alignments and coverages.
To match the Giants' three aces, he also has three of his own, one in each of the three departments: Defensive lineman Rulon Jones, linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, and defensive back Dennis Smith.
Philosophically, Collier prefers rubber-band defenses that subtract big plays at the expense of adding yards.
"There's a direct correlation between number of blitzes and number of touchdowns given up," he says.
Today, however, aggressive blitzing is the spectacular way to go. And the Denver coach, Dan Reeves, who finds it difficult offensively to cope with the aggressors himself, wants Collier to be more assertive.
So there has been a Reeves-Collier conflict in Denver, and it's a hard one to resolve, because no real compromise is possible between rubber bands and blitzers.
Only one thing is sure. Their problems didn't keep them out of the Super Bowl.