NFL Offers Its Version of the Final Four : Broncos, Brimming With Confidence, Take On Browns in Mile High Stadium

Times Staff Writer

Let's see, on Monday of Super Bowl week, we'll have Broncomania Day at Sea World, and on Tuesday the wearers of the orange and blue can hie themselves to the veranda of the Hotel Del Coronado to throw down some pina coladas in honor of John Elway.

There'll be something to do every glorious Southern California day, right up until game time at Jack Murphy Stadium, where the Denver Broncos are sure to finally prevail. Haven't the players started announcing that just being there will no longer suffice?

They haven't forgotten one little thing--like getting past the Cleveland Browns in today's American Football Conference final--have they?

The inevitable has happened: the Broncos, defending AFC champions, who won the title last season under the most adverse conditions in the Browns' own stadium, who closed this season 6-1 and then blew out the Houston Oilers last week--thanks, Jerry Glanville--have begun to think very highly of themselves, indeed.

The Oiler game was scarcely over when owner Pat Bowlen, a football man for almost three seasons now, was confiding to the local press:

"If we take care of business--I'll say this now and Cleveland will come in here and kick our butts--but if we take care of business, we can beat Cleveland. And if we take care of business, we can win the Super Bowl."

And even normally circumspect Coach Dan Reeves was allowing that he wouldn't like to be in the Browns' shoes, having to come to Mile High Stadium.

Of course, the Browns' situation is the very one the Broncos were in a year ago. The Broncos are three-point favorites today, but that reflects nothing more than the home-field advantage.

Under Elway, the Broncos are 23-5 at home. Aside from that, these two teams are evenly matched and remarkably similar, not to mention something short of dominating. They're the cream of the AFC, such as it is in the '80s, when one conference team--the Raiders--has won a Super Bowl, and none has come within 22 points on Super Sunday since 1984.

Of course, the NFC's three winningest teams have already been eliminated in this tournament, and the Broncos are suddenly rated co-Super Bowl favorites with the Washington Redskins. Look at it this way: It's been an imperfect season all around.



For the first time, Reeves has begun to complain that his guys don't get any respect. These days, the fiercest competition is over which team gets to assume Rodney Dangerfield's role.

"We're not doing it with mirrors," Reeves said after the Houston game.

He isn't doing it with the Monsters of the Midway or the Four Horsemen, either. Take a look at his toy offensive line, with its 264-pound average, modest for even a big-time college team.

What the Broncos have is Elway, three speedy Amigos--though Vance Johnson was hospitalized last week with a groin injury and is doubtful--some backs who can catch, an intelligent game plan and superb coordination.

They can't run the ball. Their line is too small and their runners too pedestrian. One measure of a team's control of the line of scrimmage is its rushing average vs. its defensive average: The Broncos rushed for 3.9 yards a carry, surrendered 4.4.

Like a small basketball team with great guards--say, the early UCLA teams--the Broncos spread the field and let Elway operate. At mid-season, with their running game in extremis , they even began using the shotgun as their primary set.

It worked, too. The Broncos were first in the AFC in offense, second in scoring.

Numbers, however, can't ever quite encompass Elway. His 53.8% completion average, for example, left him once again in the middle of the pack among AFC passers. But if you want to know who the Mr. Clutch of the NFL is, look no further than No. 7 in the orange jersey.

With his 98-yard drive last year in Cleveland, and that fantastic first half against the New York Giants in the Super Bowl at Pasadena, when it looked as if he might be able to personally pull off the mega-upset, Elway is threatening to become the stuff of legends. If you want to know how much the Browns respect him, all they talked about last week was how much they'd like to knock him out of the game.

"People in Denver talk about Elway like he doesn't go to the bathroom," said Cleveland defensive end Bubba Baker last week. "He's not God. At least not the God I pray to."

The Browns' "Dawg" defense is very good, if less than awe-inspiring. The stars operate behind the line: linebacker Clay Matthews, a former Trojan; cornerbacks Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield. All three are Pro Bowl players.

The Browns use the Bear 46 defense with eight men on the line, but they use it to fill the gaps and stop the run, not to blitz and terrorize. They gave up 3.6 yards a rush, so it looks as if it'll be up to Elway.

What else is new?



Although he knows all about it, Bernie Kosar isn't crazy about hearing how much less talented he is than Elway.

Asked last week if he ever thinks about what he'd do with Elway's mobility, he answered:


Ah that Bernie, what a kidder.

If the 26-year-old Elway remains the boyish prodigy, the 24-year-old Kosar is the poised one, Mr. Cool to Mr. Clutch.

Kosar can't run but knows how to avoid pass rushes. He can't throw long, but always seems to get the ball there. He was the AFC's top-rated passer this season, although he finished behind Elway and Dan Marino in the Pro Bowl voting. Kosar is supremely efficient, with a 2% interception ratio over the last two seasons, lowest in the league.

With Kosar, the Browns are just as efficient. They scored touchdowns on 57% of their penetrations of the opponents' 20-yard line, and led the AFC in scoring.

Without Kosar, who knows? The Browns don't run the ball so well, themselves. Two years ago, both Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack were 1,000-yard backs, but this season the team's average carry yielded 3.7 yards.

The key to the Bronco defense is Joel Collier, who doesn't play on it, but coordinates it. By the end of this season however, after injuries, retirements and phase-outs, only inside linebacker Rickey Hunley was still at the position he played in the Super Bowl. The unit came together slowly, as suggested by that average of 4.4 yards rushing it allowed.

It looks as if it could come down to Bernie vs. the Orange Crush, too.

So what else is new?

AFC Notes

Denver safety Dennis Smith, a Pro Bowl player last season, is back after suffering a broken bone in his forearm against the Raiders. With Mike Harden out after breaking his right arm last week, Smith will start. . . . Latest Broncoland flap: The sports anchormen of the city's three network TV stations can't sit in the press box, as usual, but must stand in the back. "I guess people from the Baltimore and Tampa newspapers are more important than we are," said Ron Zappolo of KCNC. KUSA's Mike Nolan consulted a lawyer but was told there was nothing he could do.

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