KANSAS CITY — The countdown to perfection begins, two key dates yet ahead in Miami before the argument can officially commence: Is Denver the best team the NFL has ever known or is everyone else in this league that bad?
Like the Yankees, the Broncos have left everyone else behind this season, and with Monday night's 30-7 laugher over the Chiefs they became only the eighth team in the NFL since the league's merger in 1970 to open the season 10-0.
The Chiefs (4-6), losers of five in a row and any class they might have possessed after a series of Derrick Thomas and Chester McGlockton cheap shots directed at the Broncos in the fourth quarter, will not have to worry about collapsing again in the playoffs under Coach Marty Schottenheimer.
"They have a bunch of 'I' guys playing a team game and they are not a team," Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "It's fun beating a team that's as selfish as that. If any guy on our team behaved like that, tomorrow he'd come in looking for a job."
The Chiefs' defense was flagged for five personal fouls--Thomas drawing three of them--prompting Schottenheimer to open his postgame press conference with an apology.
"I've been disappointed and I've been frustrated, but I have to tell you I'm embarrassed and I'm humiliated. The way we permitted the fourth quarter to go is as great a disappointment as I've ever had in my coaching experience. I'm apologizing to you, the community, because I'm embarrassed."
The final statistics favoring the Broncos were just as embarrassing as Denver ran its regular-season record over the past three years to 35-7.
"You saw one of the best teams in football just go out there and completely dominate a football game," Romanowski said. "Everyone's putting egos and personal stats aside and getting it done as a team."
The Broncos have six games remaining, a date at home Sunday with Oakland, a trip to San Diego, a rematch with Kansas City, a game with the Giants at East Rutherford, N.J., and then a Monday night in late December to circle on the calendar.
If still undefeated at 14-0, the Broncos will have to go through Miami to take a shot at the 1972 Dolphins, the NFL's standard of perfection, who went 14-0 in the regular season, finishing 17-0 with a victory in Super Bowl VII.
The 1985 Chicago Bears, like the 1998 Denver Broncos, appeared unbeatable, too, running out to a 12-0 start before losing--in Miami.
When the Bears made their dash for history, Coach Don Shula called on the players from that '72 team to line the sideline and exhort their present-day replacements to maintain the Miami legacy.
But a regular-season victory for Denver in Miami, another in the season finale at home against Seattle and the Broncos would be on a fast track to return to the Super Bowl, which will be played Jan. 31 in Miami.
"We're trying to go 11-0," said Denver running back Terrell Davis, who had 111 yards in 18 carries. "We're not looking at 16 games."
Denver quarterback John Elway, missing his fourth start of the season with sore ribs, has looked ahead and reflected on the past. The Broncos ran away with the AFC West Division and home-field advantage through the playoffs two years ago, and with two games to play rested their starters, disrupting their continuity and leading directly to Jacksonville's upset win in Denver's first playoff game.
The quest for an undefeated season, said Elway, might provide the incentive to remain sharp until the very end.
As if any further drama is needed, the Denver-Miami clash on Dec. 21 will also mark only the second time in the 16-year careers of Elway and Dan Marino--and probably the last time--the two square off.
Or maybe history really will repeat, and it will be Marino matched against Bubby Brister, Denver's version of Miami's Earl Morrall minus the high-top black shoes.
Morrall replaced an injured Bob Griese in the fifth game in 1972 and led his team to nine consecutive regular-season victories. Brister has been filling in for Elway, is 4-0, and got his first rushing touchdown since 1988--a 38-yard bootleg to start the scoring for Denver.
Morrall was 38 after being claimed off waivers; Brister is 36, and two years ago he was out of football. Both will have to pay to gain entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"We tell Bubby he's running a Ferrari," said Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, "just don't wreck it."
The Broncos had the Chiefs down 14-0 with 7:36 remaining in the first quarter. Denver has now outscored the opposition 42-3 on the first drive of the game, and 114-13 in the opening quarter.
Keith Traylor, former Chief and presently a starting defensive lineman for the Broncos, said earlier this week a Denver win would be the end to Schottenheimer's reign in Kansas City.
How ironic, if so, that it should come to a close with Schottenheimer's career-long nemesis, Elway, standing on the sideline in street clothes.
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NFL teams that have started 9-0 or better since 1970:
Year, Team Start Finish* Result 1972, Dolphins 14-0 14-0 Won Super Bowl 1985, Bears 12-0 15-1 Won Super Bowl 1991, Redskins 11-0 14-2 Won Super Bowl 1984, Dolphins 11-0 14-2 Lost Super Bowl 1990, Giants 10-0 13-3 Won Super Bowl 1990, 49ers 10-0 14-2 Lost NFC championship game 1975, Vikings 10-0 12-2 Lost divisional playoff game 1998, Broncos 10-0 -- -- 1973, Vikings 9-0 12-2 Lost Super Bowl
\o7 *Regular-season record\f7