Right, the consolation bracket.
These are strange days. A malaise afflicts the Broncomaniacs, who normally would be horseback riding nude downtown or swallowing worms to show how much they loved the Broncos (really, both happened in a 1988 contest to win tickets).
Call it F-E-A-R.
The prospect of meeting an even-more heavily favored NFC opponent (does anyone remember that the Broncos were favored over the Redskins in 1988?) and watching another Bronco rout on Super Sunday, knowing all the while that their embarrassment is being broadcast to the nether regions of China, has chilled the party to the temperature of dry ice.
Local columnists ask almost daily if it's worth winning today if the Broncs are just going to get their hindquarters handed to them again, a la 1987 (39-20 by the Giants) and '88 (42-10 by the Redskins).
A TV station, responding to this pressing civic issue, polled viewers and found that a majority, indeed, would rather the Broncos lose today than get routed Super Sunday.
Of course, Bronco players must be in a rage about such ultra-defeatist talk, right?
"I don't think the 49ers would expect us to lie down for them," said safety Dennis Smith. "Our past record shows we play those guys well . . . "
Then he grinned.
"Although they did look kind of scary last week."
Not only is this little conference 0 for its last five Super Bowls and having a problem coming up with a worthy representative, it finds itself recycling its championship.
This is the third Bronco-Brown faceoff in four years. The first two were thrillers, the Broncos prevailing narrowly in both after John Elway led them on a late 98-yard drive for a tie (The Drive), and the Browns' Earnest Byner fumbled at the goal line (The Fumble).
Twice bitten, 20 times shy, the Browns chose to try something different, like a late entrance. Before the '88 title game, they prepped for several days at altitude in Albuquerque, N.M.--and acquitted themselves well in the game--but this time they arrived Saturday afternoon, 25 hours before kickoff.
This enabled Bronco Coach Dan Reeves to mention the altitude factor every hour on the hour, perhaps on the theory that his comments would prey on the more impressionable of the Browns.
To hear Reeves tell it, they'd be gasping by the end of breakfast. He remembered last season, when the Browns played a regular-season game here, arriving the day before . . . and getting blown apart, 30-7.
"It's tough to breathe here, whether you psych yourself out or not," Reeves said. "There's no question at Mile High, it's definitely different from playing in a low altitude."
The Browns' problem is it may not just be hype; the Broncos are 55-15 here in Reeves' tenure, the best home record in the NFL.
Bowlen told the Denver Post that Modell had called the box "a disgrace," perhaps to retaliate for Bowlen's having called Cleveland Stadium a "cow pasture" and its visitors dressing room "not much better than a rusty nail on a wall."
For his part, Modell showed up at Friday's coaches' press conference and denied, with some energy, being angry at all.
"I had more people in my party to accommodate, including my family," Modell said. "I needed more room. The whole thing has been blown out of context and never should have been made public to begin with."
Then he was unhappy Bowlen made it public?
"I thought it was--no, I like Pat Bowlen," Modell said.
And Bowlen's comments about Modell's stadium?
"Others have said the same thing," Modell said, smiling beatifically. "We like it."
WHEN BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
What we've got here are two tough defenses, and two offenses that had sub-par seasons.
The Broncos have an edge; their offense is more multi-dimensional, although it under-achieved during the season (ranking No. 15), mostly because John Elway was shaky (18 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 18th-ranked passer).
However, Elway is healthy, whereas Bernie Kosar's sore right elbow and shoulder have been problems throughout the season. And Elway had one of his vintage Here-I-Come-To-Save-The Day performances last week, ending his funk for the moment, anyway
For the first time under Reeves, the Broncos have been able to bulk up their toy offensive line. They've found the blue-chip back they sorely needed in Bobby Humphrey, who slammed his way to 1,150 yards this season, and 85 last week against the Steelers.
The Brown defense under Bud Carson junked Marty Schottenheimer's bend-don't-break system, found an up-front leader in Michael Dean Perry, set a team record for sacks (45) and ranked No. 7 overall.
Modell said Carson's defense would never have allowed that 98-yard Bronco drive--"No way in a hundred years."
Maybe he should have waited. In their last two games, the Browns allowed 414 passing yards to Warren Moon and 405 to Jim Kelly, both career highs. Not only that, while Carson fumed on the sideline last week, Kelly drove the Bills 74 yards in the last 2:41, and would have won the game if Ronnie Harmon hadn't dropped his pass in the end zone.
"I thought it was a great day for Moon," says Carson, a shooter so straight he had to wait until age 58 for his first head coaching job.
"We came away from the Houston game thinking our coverage was not real good but we won, so let's give all the credit to Moon, which is what I did.
"And after last week, when we didn't play well at all on pass defense, then we had to sit down and answer some hard questions."
"I think the strangest part is to give one running back (Thurman Thomas) 150 yards. It's hard to believe that could happen. It's a reflection on me and I've already accepted that. We didn't do a bad job on their wide receivers. We did a very poor job covering what we thought would be the easiest part of our coverage."
One trouble spot: cornerback Hanford Dixon. Carson tried to move the three-time All-Pro to safety, but gave up when Dixon resisted. Carson must have seen something; opponents have spotted it, too, and are going at him.
WHEN BROWNS HAVE THE BALL
The Browns have an average offensive line at best (they were ranked No. 21 in rushing yardage), average receivers led by Webster Slaughter and a galvanizing little big-play rookie back named Eric Metcalf.
Mostly, they depend on Kosar. When he's right, the ugly duckling of NFL quarterbacks can get them into the top 10; this year he was hurt, and with his limitations, he can't afford any more. The Browns' offense trudged in at No. 16.
Carson almost benched Kosar in their 0-3-1 November, when the offense scored only three touchdowns. Carson fretted about the calls of Bernie's guy, offensive coordinator Marc Trestman; Trestman now works with network TV cameras trained on him, as if they expect him to get fired on the spot.
Kosar, the gamer, bounced back in his last three games and offers the Browns a reason to hope.
Where once the Broncos fielded a cerebral, stunting, Joe Collier defense, they now offer a more basic, physical, Wade Phillips unit. No. 25 in 1988, they rose all the way to No. 3 this season, and they can now stop the run.
The only problem last week was they didn't. They didn't play the pass so well either and the humble Steelers hit them for 404 yards.
Reeves worried later that his defense might have been too predictable, although he would say no more. Maybe it was that zone they were always in on third and long, which Bubby Brister riddled.
Or maybe the Broncos thought they just had to show up.
"That's the way it looked, anyway," Dennis Smith said.
They're awake at last, and they're used to that thin air, too, so how can they lose?
Ask any Broncomaniac.