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Broncos' Best Shot Is to Make Packers Play Catch-Up


This is a sports era that has been enlivened by seven or eight good football teams. Several of them could have won the Super Bowl in other years if they had then had their current coaches and players, or so it seems to me.

Even so, in such a crowd, the Green Bay Packers stand out.

They dominate pro football as surely as they did in the 1960s, the last great Packer era. With quarterback Brett Favre, running back Dorsey Levens and the NFL's smartest defense, they seem a touchdown or two better than the Denver Broncos or any other AFC team this year.

There's really only one thing you don't know about Green Bay. If Denver's quarterback and running back, John Elway and Terrell Davis, can somehow put the Broncos ahead next Sunday, you don't know how expertly the Packers will play from behind in the second half. They have shown that they can blow opponents out--but they lack comeback experience against players as gifted as Denver's.

Conceivably, the Packers would be an even better team now if they'd had to come back against San Francisco last week. In the NFC title game, the 49ers could have held a third-quarter lead with either better officiating or instant-replay officiating, or both.

That rainy afternoon, San Francisco appeared to lose two touchdowns to bad calls in a game that wasn't as one-sided as it seemed. One touchdown was disallowed in the second quarter when a 49er, after catching a pass in the end zone, was ruled out of bounds even though a Packer had pushed him out. The other San Francisco touchdown was lost in the third quarter when, after a Green Bay fumble, a 49er was running for six easy points when called back by an official who hadn't seen the fumble.

The score at that point could have been 14-10 San Francisco, or, at the least, 14-13. And who knows what happens then? Eventually, the Packers won, 23-10. They're obviously the better team. But could they have proved it if they had to play from behind against a good team?

The Broncos

Denver's only chance this time is to fake runs and throw passes. Early in the game, on first-down plays particularly, it's a waste of priceless opportunities to send any running back--even Davis--against the clever Packer defense when it's fresh and determined.

You don't get ahead of Green Bay rushing the ball. As good as Davis is, he can't outscore Favre. Moreover:

* Elway is an all-time big-game passer.

* Denver Coach Mike Shanahan is an authority on pass offense and play design.

* The shotgun formation, which Elway prefers, muffles the Davis threat.

* The best Bronco receiver, tight end Shannon Sharpe, can take Green Bay's best defensive player, LeRoy Butler, out of the game.

To win, the Broncos will have to strike hard in the first half. For, in every recent game, they have been wholly without a second-half killer instinct. They have been just hanging on. Their defense has saved Elway.

That defense, with Neil Smith rushing the passer, is formidable, as Green Bay will discover. The Broncos won the AFC title game in Pittsburgh last week by confusing a good young quarterback, Kordell Stewart. It sounds easy--Stewart is like a rookie--but no other defense has been able to do it.

The Packers

Although it's not certain that Favre would have outplayed 49er quarterback Steve Young if Young could have teamed with injury-free Jerry Rice and Garrison Hearst--Favre is heading for the Super Bowl again as the leader of a team that has all this:

* A brilliant defense.

* A brilliant kicking game.

* A brilliant runner: Levens, who has the best combination of speed, moves and power in football today, is a big man to offset Denver's Davis.

* Incomparable strategy and tactics: Green Bay Coach Mike Holmgren has the most complete grasp of West Coast football among the many coaches now using that style--a style that has won the last five Super Bowls.

* An incomparable front office: In the beginning, Green Bay General Manager Ron Wolf had the wit to tap into Bill Walsh's organization for a head coach, Holmgren, the 49ers' offensive coordinator. And first to last, Wolf has handed Holmgren winning players. The first, years ago, was Favre. The last was Ross Verba, the club's top draft choice this season and, possibly, the best rookie who ever played the critical left tackle position.

* A unique quarterback: With Young aging in San Francisco, Favre is now the only NFL player who can do it both ways--as a conventional passer and as a wild-man improviser.

It can't comfort the Broncos this week to realize that if they stop the conventional quarterback, they'll still lose to the wild man.

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