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NFL Offers Its Version of the Final Four : Broncos, Brimming With Confidence, Take On Browns in Mile High Stadium

January 17, 1988|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Let's see, on Monday of Super Bowl week, we'll have Broncomania Day at Sea World, and on Tuesday the wearers of the orange and blue can hie themselves to the veranda of the Hotel Del Coronado to throw down some pina coladas in honor of John Elway.

There'll be something to do every glorious Southern California day, right up until game time at Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Denver Broncos are sure to finally prevail. Haven't the players started announcing that just being there will no longer suffice?

They haven't forgotten one little thing--like getting past the Cleveland Browns in today's American Football Conference final--have they?

The inevitable has happened: the Broncos, defending AFC champions, who won the title last season under the most adverse conditions in the Browns' own stadium, who closed this season 6-1 and then blew out the Houston Oilers last week--thanks, Jerry Glanville--have begun to think very highly of themselves, indeed.

The Oiler game was scarcely over when owner Pat Bowlen, a football man for almost three seasons now, was confiding to the local press:

"If we take care of business--I'll say this now and Cleveland will come in here and kick our butts--but if we take care of business, we can beat Cleveland. And if we take care of business, we can win the Super Bowl."

And even normally circumspect Coach Dan Reeves was allowing that he wouldn't like to be in the Browns' shoes, having to come to Mile High Stadium.

Of course, the Browns' situation is the very one the Broncos were in a year ago. The Broncos are three-point favorites today, but that reflects nothing more than the home-field advantage.

Under Elway, the Broncos are 23-5 at home. Aside from that, these two teams are evenly matched and remarkably similar, not to mention something short of dominating. They're the cream of the AFC, such as it is in the '80s, when one conference team--the Raiders--has won a Super Bowl, and none has come within 22 points on Super Sunday since 1984.

Of course, the NFC's three winningest teams have already been eliminated in this tournament, and the Broncos are suddenly rated co-Super Bowl favorites with the Washington Redskins. Look at it this way: It's been an imperfect season all around.

WHEN DENVER

HAS THE BALL

For the first time, Reeves has begun to complain that his guys don't get any respect. These days, the fiercest competition is over which team gets to assume Rodney Dangerfield's role.

"We're not doing it with mirrors," Reeves said after the Houston game.

He isn't doing it with the Monsters of the Midway or the Four Horsemen, either. Take a look at his toy offensive line, with its 264-pound average, modest for even a big-time college team.

What the Broncos have is Elway, three speedy Amigos--though Vance Johnson was hospitalized last week with a groin injury and is doubtful--some backs who can catch, an intelligent game plan and superb coordination.

They can't run the ball. Their line is too small and their runners too pedestrian. One measure of a team's control of the line of scrimmage is its rushing average vs. its defensive average: The Broncos rushed for 3.9 yards a carry, surrendered 4.4.

Like a small basketball team with great guards--say, the early UCLA teams--the Broncos spread the field and let Elway operate. At mid-season, with their running game in extremis , they even began using the shotgun as their primary set.

It worked, too. The Broncos were first in the AFC in offense, second in scoring.

Numbers, however, can't ever quite encompass Elway. His 53.8% completion average, for example, left him once again in the middle of the pack among AFC passers. But if you want to know who the Mr. Clutch of the NFL is, look no further than No. 7 in the orange jersey.

With his 98-yard drive last year in Cleveland, and that fantastic first half against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl at Pasadena, when it looked as if he might be able to personally pull off the mega-upset, Elway is threatening to become the stuff of legends. If you want to know how much the Browns respect him, all they talked about last week was how much they'd like to knock him out of the game.

"People in Denver talk about Elway like he doesn't go to the bathroom," said Cleveland defensive end Bubba Baker last week. "He's not God. At least not the God I pray to."

The Browns' "Dawg" defense is very good, if less than awe-inspiring. The stars operate behind the line: linebacker Clay Matthews, a former Trojan; cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. All three are Pro Bowl players.

The Browns use the Bear 46 defense with eight men on the line, but they use it to fill the gaps and stop the run, not to blitz and terrorize. They gave up 3.6 yards a rush, so it looks as if it'll be up to Elway.

What else is new?

WHEN CLEVELAND

HAS THE BALL

Although he knows all about it, Bernie Kosar isn't crazy about hearing how much less talented he is than Elway.

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