The Denver Broncos won Sunday, but it was Falcon Coach Dan Reeves who left his characteristic mark in this grudge match, forcing John Elway once again to think about waging a comeback--only this time while ahead.
The Broncos (5-0), who had jumped to a 23-0 lead on Reeves' undermanned Falcons, needed a third-down completion from Elway while positioned at his 11-yard line with two minutes remaining to preserve a 29-21 victory over Atlanta (0-5) before 48,211.
"Any time you get a Dan Reeves team down you've got to bury the dagger because a Dan Reeves team never gives up," said Elway, who engineered 31 of his career 41 comebacks under the 10-year direction of Reeves. "It entered my mind that they were going to come back and tie it up and we were going to have to come back again. The bottom line is we got out of here with a win."
Elway, still bitter at being kept under wraps by Reeves, made no effort to approach Reeves before or after the game, although Reeves positioned himself at midfield for pregame warmups and went searching for the quarterback afterward.
Denver Coach Mike Shanahan, given his first job in the pros by Reeves and later fired by him for insubordination after drawing up plays for Elway without the head coach's knowledge, shook hands with Reeves after the game.
"I can't say this wasn't something special winning this game given the circumstances," Shanahan said.
If this was supposed to be a fight, it was not a fair one. The Broncos, now winners of 18 of their last 21 regular-season games, had the personnel to steamroll Reeves' Falcons. It took them four plays and 1:42 to score the first touchdown of the game, on a 65-yard pass from Elway to Shannon Sharpe, and midway through the first quarter it was already 13-0 with the Broncos lining up for a two-point conversion.
"I thought, what is Mike Shanahan trying to do--rub it in?" Sharpe said.
Unbeknownst to Sharpe, Denver kicker Jason Elam had pulled a hip muscle on the previous kickoff, so rather than have Elway, the Broncos' backup kicker, try the extra point, Shanahan had Elway hand the ball to running back Terrell Davis for two points and a 15-0 lead. How convenient--an excuse to run it up.
Elway took the Broncos in for another touchdown in the opening moments of the second quarter, added another two points with a Davis plunge and the Falcons looked pathetic. They couldn't run the ball, couldn't get the time to let quarterback Chris Chandler throw and Denver was on the march again with a chance to go up at least 29-0.
"We took for granted they would roll over and die," Sharpe said. "We forgot that's not the kind of team Dan Reeves puts on the field."
The Falcons intercepted an Elway pass, scored before halftime, scored again in the third quarter and for the first time all day the Falcon fans could be heard over the Bronco supporters.
But then veteran kicker Morten Andersen, who had missed a field-goal attempt earlier, let Reeves down again by kicking off out of bounds and putting Elway in prime position to fight back at his 40-yard line. Seven plays later the Broncos had scored, Elway bootlegging right as Reeves had him doing so many times during their marriage and throwing a 17-yard touchdown pass to fullback Detron Smith.
The two-point pile-it-on play failed, and the Falcons trailed, 29-14. Now it's nothing new for a Reeves team to fall behind, but with Elway throwing the football there was always a chance. In New York with Dave Brown, there was no chance.
This would get tougher yet. Two plays into the fourth quarter, Chandler was being carted off the field with a severe ankle injury, and if Atlanta was going to rally, it would be behind Billy Joe Tolliver, who threw 16 touchdowns and 15 interceptions for the Shreveport Pirates of the Canadian Football League two years ago.
But the Falcons continued to embody the competitiveness that has always defined Dan Reeves' teams. They made things happen with no apparent strength: Tolliver to Jamal Anderson for 47 yards and a touchdown, and now take another look, with more than 11 minutes to play, the Falcons were within a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Twice, however, they would get stopped on third down and be forced to punt down the stretch, the last time turning the ball over to Denver with 3:07 to play. Third and six from the Denver 11, and they rushed Elway with a last chance to get the ball back and fight for a win, but Elway found a diving Willie Green for seven yards, and the clock would run out.
"They played their hearts out," said Ed McCaffrey, the Denver receiver cut by Reeves earlier while with the New York Giants. "That team we played against today has a lot of pride."
And nothing more. They lack an NFL-quality quarterback, an effective running game and you can't name a big-time defender on their roster. And yet 0-4 and trailing 23-0, they were still slugging it out with what might be the best team in football.
"I'm sure Dan will turn this thing around," said Elway, and it would have been a nice thing to say if he really had meant it.