This Time, Just Call It Elway : AFC championship: Bronco quarterback is at his best in 37-21 victory over Browns as Denver earns its third trip to the Super Bowl in four seasons.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If the thin air does not get you, there is always John Elway, who awoke once more in the nick of time--Oh, hi guys, is it playoff time again?--and mesmerized some light-headed pooches from Cleveland.

Was that the altitude the Browns felt, or just oxygen debt from chasing Elway all over the lot? All they know is they are gone again. If the first Denver-Cleveland title game was The Drive and the second The Fumble, this one belonged to The Man.

What Elway did Sunday was pass for 385 yards and three touchdowns, lead the Broncos in rushing, too, and lead them past the Browns, 37-21.

Now for the bad news. The Broncos will meet the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV--and have already been installed as 11-point underdogs.

This was only intermittently a contest, the Browns' quarterback/salvation, Bernie Kosar, opening up with a right arm that seemed to have regressed from grandfatherly to barely alive.

The Broncos made it close by fumbling the ball away at the Cleveland one-yard line on their opening drive, but took leads of 10-0 and 24-7 before Kosar figured out how to throw anything besides floaters to Bronco safeties with every joint in his arm aching.

To Kosar's credit, he found a stroke he could work with and helped the Browns close to 24-21. But Elway danced on their helmets again, turning yet another scramble into yet another key play.

"If there was ever any question in anybody's mind how great an athlete John Elway is," said Bronco Coach Dan Reeves, "I think he showed everybody today."

Actually, there had been plenty of questions as Elway finished his "Sweet 18" season--18 touchdown passes, 18 interceptions, 18th-ranked passer in the league.

When the inquiry expanded to questions about if he had a drinking problem, an infuriated Elway said he was suffocating in Denver and might require a trade.

"It's been a frustrating year but this is what makes it all worthwhile," Elway said.

"I think that every quarterback goes through some rough times. When you're playing the position, everything isn't going to be rosy all the time. So it's really a matter of being strong and hanging in there. That's what I tried to do all year."

Only the AFC, which hasn't won a Super Bowl since the Raiders in 1984, could match these two teams for the third time in four years to see which would become its latest heavy underdog.

The Browns asked for permission to come in late. Reeves complained they had taken advantage of a "rookie commissioner." Brown owner Art Modell asked to rent an extra luxury box for $5,000. Bronco owner Pat Bowlen disclosed that Modell had called the free visiting owners' box "a disgrace." Modell said he hadn't.

Get it?

The Broncos were ready.

The Browns were only as ready as Kosar, who came in looking as if he'd metamorphosed from ugly duckling to dead duck.

Of Kosar's first eight passes, the Browns caught one (a three-yard toss in the flat); the Broncos caught one (a soft pass to safety Dennis Smith); and six were incomplete.

Kosar was obviously hurting. He said later he has been experimenting with new throwing motions for the past six weeks, and started feeling better late in Sunday's second quarter, by which time was running out.

"I've had it all year," Kosar said, trying to shrug off his ailments. "I haven't used it as an excuse all year."

Before he threw his first spiral, the Broncos led, 10-0. They turned the Smith interception into a 29-yard field goal by David Treadwell. After a long stand by the Dawgs' defense, Elway broke up the game, combining with ex-Bruin and ex-Ram Michael Young on a 70-yard touchdown pass.

Does this sound familiar?

Blitzing Brown linebacker Clay Matthews forced Elway out of the pocket. Elway rolled to his right, and throwing across his body, hurled one about 45 yards. Young, blissfully alone, turned right, then left, caught the ball and ran the last 30 yards into the end zone.

"They were bringing the house (blitzing everyone) at us," Elway said. "If they did miss anybody, we had guys wide open."

They missed Young, all right. Cornerback Frank Minnifield tried to jam him but fell down, leaving Young to roam the secondary all by himself.

"What Frank did, it's a technique where they back off five yards and then try to surprise you and blow you off the line," Young said. "I think Frank was off-balance. I hit him just right and he either spun off or fell down, I don't know. I figured, 'Hey, there's nobody in front of me, why not just continue down the field?' John read it perfectly and laid it right in there."

Kosar led a 70-yard drive to start the third quarter, finishing it with a 27-yard touchdown pass to Brian Brennan, cutting it to 10-7, but that only woke the Broncos up.

Elway marched them 80 yards, throwing a five-yard scoring pass to tight end Orson Mobley, covered--or trailed--by linebacker David Grayson. Brown Coach Bud Carson had just pulled his cornerbacks and free safety in a goal-line defense. The Broncos, waiting for it, just threw over it.

Then Elway took them 60 yards. Sammy Winder ran seven yards for the touchdown and a 24-7 lead.

Insurmountable, no?

No.

Kosar took the Browns 72 yards, the last 10 on a pass to Brennan, who pried the low throw off the ground by his fingernails, flipped it into the air and caught it.

On the second play of the next Bronco possession, Melvin Bratton fumbled in the air to Brown safety Felix Wright, who returned it to the Bronco 1. Two plays later, Tim Manoa went in and it was 24-21.

Remember the '88 shootout, when Kosar brought the Browns from a 21-3 deficit and might have won if Earnest Byner had not been stripped going in for a touchdown?

Elway did.

"I could see everyone going, 'The Comeback,' " he said.

Not for long.

Elway did it again: 80 yards in six plays, finishing it with a pass over the middle to Winder, who broke a tackle and ran 39 yards into the end zone.

The piece de resistance, however, came on third and 10 at the Denver 43--after Elway's cadence faked the Browns offside on third and 15. That was the third time Elway suckered the Browns offsides with his cadence; in Mile High Stadium, either you cannot hear or you hear too much.

On third and 10, Elway was chased--left this time--and running away from his receiver, with no chance to plant and only arm strength available, he lobbed a pass back into the middle of the field to Vance Johnson for a first down.

If another quarterback tried throwing a late lob across his body over the middle, his coach might shoot him on the spot, but this is Elway, who makes his own rules, sometimes.

"That was a close throw," he said. "I just put some touch on it--believe it or not--and got it over Minnifield's hand. Vance made a great catch 'cause he got tattooed after he caught it."

Late in the day, Elway was asked if he'd do anything different in this Super Bowl.

"Yeah, I'm not going to get a haircut," he said, laughing. "I got a haircut both times before when I went down there. I may look like a long-hair, but I'm not cutting my hair."

Right. You know what it did to Sampson.

The Broncos need him at full heroic strength.

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