Broncos not yet in league of their own

Super Bowl Xxxiii

January 31, 1999

MIAMI -- Let's say the Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons tonight in the Super Bowl at Pro Player Stadium. It's hardly a given, but let's just say they do. What do we make of the Broncos then?

They'd want you to believe they're one of the best teams in NFL history, one of only six to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles. And they could be working on their third in a row, a feat no team has accomplished, if they hadn't blown an easy trip to the Super Bowl two years ago with a home playoff loss to Jacksonville.

They're 32-6 since that loss, a record that includes six straight postseason wins, only two at home.

Pretty impressive. And the Broncos probably will begin next season as the favorite to win the AFC title again, no matter what happens tonight and regardless if John Elway retires, which he probably will.

They're the class of the NFL right now, no question. But are they of the same caliber as Vince Lombardi's Packers, Chuck Noll's Steelers, Bill Walsh's 49ers and the other great teams in NFL history?

Seems like a stretch, doesn't it? And why is that?

For starters, the Broncos have only two bona fide Hall of Famers, Elway and running back Terrell Davis, with tight end Shannon Sharpe a possible third. Most of the other great teams had twice as many or more.

The Broncos also don't have the dominating defense that's usually the hallmark of a dynasty. Yes, their defense is solid and seems to play at a higher level in big games, as the

Packers learned in the Super Bowl a year ago. Still, it was ranked only seventh among the 15 AFC defenses this season. You can't spin that.

The reality is that expansion, free agency and the salary cap probably have ended the era of great teams, those that dominated for years with the same core of players. That's not to say another dynasty couldn't rise. But the talent pool is more diluted, the rules are different and it's almost inevitable now that teams lose key players, disrupting continuity.

Don't misunderstand, we're not saying the Broncos aren't terrific, because they are. Elway is still a top quarterback even at the end of his career, although he probably couldn't pass a team to a big win anymore. But fear not, Davis is a fearsome weapon without peer in the league.

But instead of being a team for the ages, the Broncos probably are just the best you can expect from a watered-down NFL in which nothing stays the same for long.

They're a good team that hit the lottery when Davis, a sixth-round draft pick in 1995, blossomed into an MVP.

It didn't hurt that the Cowboys and 49ers had entered declines, and that the Packers couldn't sustain their excellence in the wake of a drain of free-agent losses. With all due respect to Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler, there's a big difference between having to beat him in the Super Bowl and having to beat Steve Young, Brett Favre or Troy Aikman.

Having said that, the Falcons are a quality NFC champion with an air of destiny about them. They play the right game for January, relying on their running game, their defense and an absence of turnovers. Expect them to play well tonight.

But the Broncos are favored for a reason. They aren't satisfied with just getting to the Super Bowl, as are the Falcons, long a member of the NFL's underclass. No, the Broncos are the better team with the better coach, Mike Shanahan, an exacting offensive whiz who leaves little to chance.

A victory tonight would work for them in a more lasting way, not just in the immediate sense.

"It would put us on another level," Broncos fullback Howard Griffith said. "A lot of people still think the AFC is the inferior conference after all those years the NFC dominated. [Beating the Falcons] would legitimize what we're doing."

They can't think about that now. Just a year ago, the Packers thought their second straight trip to the Super Bowl was a coronation, a validation of their place on the list of top teams. Oops. They lost to the Broncos and now they're on the way down.

The Broncos surely have heeded that lesson, which should only increase their determination to beat the Falcons. Back-to-back Super Bowl wins would, indeed, put them in a higher category. It's been almost 20 years since an AFC team did it.

"But as for whether that makes us one of the greatest teams ever, who knows?" longtime Broncos safety Steve Atwater said.

He's right. Who knows? Such debates are not only subjective, but also subject to change. What if the Broncos win tonight, come back and win again next year without Elway? How can we not give them their due as a classic team?

In any case, their stated goal is to take the subjectivity out of the debate and prove themselves worthy of such comparisons. They aren't there yet. But nor are they finished.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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