A pounding heart doesn't miss its big beat

January 26, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

SAN DIEGO -- Has your heart stopped pounding yet? John Elway's hasn't. Fourth-and-six for Green Bay. Fourth-and-six at the Denver 31 with 32 seconds left. One play to end Elway's Super Bowl curse, or establish him as a goat.

Was this for real? A Super Bowl heart-stopper? More like surreal. Or unreal. Even at the end, no one expected Elway to get the happy, delirious ending he so richly deserved.

But you saw it: John Mobley knocked down Brett Favre's last-gasp pass. The Broncos fans at Qualcomm Stadium erupted. And Elway was a Super Bowl champion at last.

Denver 31, Green Bay 24.

One of the most exciting Super Bowls in history. One of the biggest upsets. And one of the most fitting team efforts, on a night when the Broncos had to carry Elway, instead of the other way around.

"This one's for John," an emotional Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said as he handed Elway the Super Bowl trophy on a makeshift stage, the crowd chanting, "El-way! El-way!"

"Other than my wife and four kids, there's nothing better than this -- and I tell you what, I can't believe it," Elway said. "It's been a lot of work. And so many things going against us, the NFC, AFC, all those type of things, oh, it's unbelievable."

The future Hall of Fame quarterback smiled that big smile, waved that big trophy. For two weeks, he had said that this was the strongest of his Super Bowl teams. It had to be, as erratically as he played last night.

Will anyone even remember in the aftermath of the Broncos' momentous performance? You either win or lose in the NFL. The rest, as Elway discovered over 15 trying seasons, is almost incidental.

He gets his ring now. Gets it on his fourth try. Gets it despite completing only 12 of 22 passes for 123 yards. Gets it when he easily could have been the goat of this game, instead of the sentimental hero.

Elway avoided joining future Raven Jim Kelly as the only starting quarterback to lose four Super Bowls. And the Broncos avoided becoming the first team to lose five Super Bowls.

"I'm so proud that this team came together," Elway said. "We did it the hard way. But for all the Bronco fans that never had this feeling, we finally got it done, and that's neat."

Miami's Dan Marino must have been envious, seeing the Broncos bail out Elway. A little help from his friends? Elway got it. He deserved it. He can retire in peace, if that is what he chooses.

Terrell Davis ran to the jeweler to pick out Elway's precious ornament. And when Favre tried to take it away in the final minutes, the Denver defense made like bodyguards, rising in one last glorious stand.

Davis was the MVP, the difference between all those flawed Broncos teams and this gutsy champion. In four playoff games, he rushed for 581 yards, including 157 last night in an exhausting, courageous performance.

An offensive line that kept springing Davis, a defense that twice intercepted Favre, a coverage team that forced a fumble -- this is how the Broncos became only the second wild-card team to win a Super Bowl.

Elway? He had his moments, too, but mostly running the ball, not throwing it. His 10-yard scramble led to the Broncos' first touchdown. His 1-yard keeper produced the second. And his third-and-6 scramble from the Green Bay 12 set up the third.

Two Packers drilled him on that play, but Elway got up quickly, pumping his fist. That run showed his courage. The touchdown run showed his smarts.

"He could have tossed the ball to the fullback for a touchdown," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "But he didn't want to take the chance of him dropping out. There's only one thing John Elway cares about. That's winning."

And on this night, after 13 straight Super Bowl losses by the AFC -- three in which the Broncos were outscored 136-40 -- Elway, Shanahan and Co. got it done.

The final scoring drive began from the Green Bay 49 with 3: 27 left. Even then, Elway was barely needed. The Packers contributed a 15-yard face-mask penalty. Howard Griffith turned a short pass into a 23-yard gain. And Davis did the rest.

This was the way it had to happen after Elway tied a Super Bowl record with his seventh interception, an absolute killer into the end zone with the Broncos leading 24-17 in the third quarter.

The Broncos had gotten the ball back on the Green Bay 22 after recovering a fumbled kickoff. Elway tried to find Rod Smith in the end zone, but Eugene Robinson stepped in front of him, and suddenly the momentum turned again.

A dozen times, the Broncos could have lost this game after taking a 10-point lead in the first half. Besides Elway's second-half interception, their second-half follies included:

A fumble by Davis on the first play of the third quarter.

Two fourth-down offside penalties.

An invalid fair-catch penalty, two holding penalties (one at the Green Bay 8) and a 25-yard pass interference.

A dropped interception in the end zone by Steve Atwater that led to a Green Bay field goal.

Of course, the Packers made nearly as many mistakes. Three turnovers. Nine penalties. And three botched drives after tying the score with 13: 32 left.

In the end, it didn't matter that Elway failed to throw for a touchdown or complete a pass to Smith. The Packers' early turnovers were so critical, Denver took a 17-7 lead with Elway completing only two of six passes for 13 yards.

"You can't give enough credit to these two guys here, they made it all happen," Elway said, pointing to Davis and Shanahan. "You wonder if you're going to run out of years. But fortunately I hung on, and Mike came in and got it done for us."

His heart kept pounding. It never, ever stopped.

Pub Date: 1/26/98

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