Style points put Broncos above crowd Football: Denver's defense might not be good enough to go 16-0, but a flashy offense keeps the Broncos atop the list of Super Bowl contenders.

NFL at the half

November 08, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

There are no such things as style points in the NFL, but there is a matter of winning in style. For half a season, no team has done it better than the Denver Broncos.

They lead the league in scoring, rush offense and, now that the Minnesota Vikings have fallen, talk of a perfect season.

"Our goal is not to stay undefeated," coach Mike Shanahan said of his 8-0 defending champs. "Our goal is to win the Super Bowl.

L "But at the same time, you're going into every game to win."

The Broncos have a swagger born of an offense that averages 34.1 points a game, that has scored more than 30 points six times and more than 40 twice. They win in a style reminiscent of the AFL's old shootout days.

Which is to say, their defense isn't all that good.

The Broncos give up 318.8 yards a game, 19th best in the NFL. They give up 19.9 points a game, sixth most in the AFC. That won't be good enough to deliver the NFL's first perfect season since the Miami Dolphins' 17-0 campaign 26 years ago.

Critical dates to watch: Nov. 16 at the Kansas City Chiefs and Dec. 21 at Miami, both Monday night affairs. Only once this decade have the Broncos been able to sweep the season series with the Chiefs.

If the Broncos are 14-0 heading into Miami in Week 16, the Dolphins will have a delicious chance to repeat history. When the Super Bowl-bound Chicago Bears took a 12-0 record into Miami on Dec. 2, 1985, they were whipped by the Dolphins, 38-24.

Prediction: More than one team will beat the Broncos before the regular season ends, but no one will beat them in the postseason.

Here is a look back at the first half of the 1998 season.

Midyear awards

MVP: Quarterback Randall Cunningham, Vikings. Where would the Vikings be without him? In fourth place in the NFC Central, headed to San Antonio. The two-time NFL Player of the Year with the Philadelphia Eagles had a career half-year with 16 touchdown passes and only three interceptions. He's the highest-rated passer in the league, and if he keeps playing this well, it'll be hard for Brad Johnson to get his job back.

Offensive player: Running back Terrell Davis, Broncos. How's this for a Super Bowl encore? Davis is on pace to rush for 2,300 yards this season, which would demolish Eric Dickerson's single-season record of 2,105, set in 1984. Want more? Davis is averaging 143.8 rushing yards a game, 5.7 yards a carry, has scored 14 rushing touchdowns and has gained at least 100 yards in seven consecutive games. That's with the smallest line in the league.

Defensive player: Cornerback Deion Sanders, Dallas Cowboys. No one stifles a game plan the way Sanders does. Since very few teams are willing to throw at him, he essentially cuts the field in half for a quarterback. His 71-yard interception return for a touchdown against the New York Giants in Week 3 is an example of what happens when teams are foolish enough to challenge him.

Coach: Jon Gruden, Oakland Raiders. The Raiders have been in the playoffs just once in the last six years. Barring a second-half collapse, Gruden will get them there his rookie season, one year after they went 4-12.

Comeback player: Quarterback Doug Flutie, Buffalo Bills. The former CFL star is the smallest quarterback and biggest story in the NFL this year.

Offensive rookie: Running back Fred Taylor, Jacksonville Jaguars. For all of the attention given to Vikings receiver Randy Moss, Taylor has scored more touchdowns (seven vs. six) and has more total yards. He already owns the longest rushing play (77 yards) and longest pass play (78) in team history. And he's averaging 5.2 yards per carry on a team that has never run the ball very well.

Defensive rookie: Cornerback Charles Woodson, Oakland. The Heisman Trophy winner hit a speed bump early in the opener but has played like a steely veteran ever since.

The playoff envelope, please

If the playoffs began today, there would be six new teams in the Super Bowl tournament -- three in each conference -- from a year ago.

The New York Jets, Raiders and Bills would join No. 1 seed Denver, No. 2 seed Jacksonville, and Miami in the AFC. The Jets would play host to the Bills, and the Raiders would entertain the Dolphins in wild-card games.

In the NFC, Dallas, Atlanta and -- gasp! -- Arizona, would join top-seeded Minnesota, second-seeded San Francisco and fifth-seeded Green Bay. The wild-card games would send Arizona to Dallas and Green Bay to Atlanta.

Jets' key to success

Bill Belichick gets this vote as the NFL's most valuable assistant coach. At the very least, he is Bill Parcells' X-factor.

Belichick has worked for Parcells at three stops -- with the New York Giants, the New England Patriots and now the Jets. With Belichick on his staff, Parcells is 102-64-1.

Without him, Parcells is 21-27.

Dr. Jekyll's in the house

The Vikings' 7-1 start is nothing new under Dennis Green. In his seven seasons as coach, the Vikings are 37-19 over the first half of the year. Then they become Mr. Hyde. Down the stretch, they are only 26-22.

Management 101

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