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Give Upstart Falcons a Passing Chance, but Broncos Have the Horses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The one significant difference between the Super Bowl teams, the Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons, is that the Broncos played in the Super Bowl last year and won. They know what that’s like.

The fact that Green Bay lost last year as the more experienced Super Bowl team isn’t applicable this year, when the Falcons, unlike most teams that get this far in any sport, came out of nowhere. That surprised everyone, Falcon players included.

So, the pick here is Denver by nine.

It’s a team that has everything a defending Super Bowl champion must have to repeat, not least a relatively injury-free group of young veterans.

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But if Denver should win, Atlanta could win. Position for position, the Falcons appear to be at least as capable as the Broncos except at running back, where Denver’s Terrell Davis is the more efficient ballcarrier than Jamal Anderson and a candidate for best ever.

At quarterback, it’s more like parity. In fact, physically, in the qualities that count most, Atlanta’s Chris Chandler seems clearly ahead of Denver’s John Elway. As a passer, Chandler has been quicker and more consistent than Elway this season and at most distances more accurate.

Elway’s advantage is that he has been here before, but that’s also a disadvantage, sort of, for he’s a little old now for this work. Not too old, though. He’s good for one more.

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Atlanta’s assets: The Falcons, as coached by Dan Reeves, are happiest on the ground. Even though their passing-game personnel is superior to Denver’s, the Falcons prefer to run the ball.

That is one of the two ironies of this Super Bowl.

The other is that, even though the Broncos’ running-game personnel is superior to anyone else’s, they’d rather throw.

Nonetheless, it seems that the Falcons’ best chance again this time is to open with passes, as they did in Minneapolis in the NFC championship game, and attack Denver with their air-game assets: the best passer in Super Bowl XXXIII and the best pair of wide receivers, Terance Mathis and Tony Martin.

Hardly anything has surprised the NFL more this season than discovering that Chandler is a real quarterback. He throws hard, tight, accurate spirals with a perfect passing motion--the compact Joe Namath motion, in which the ball leaves from a point just behind the ear and leaves in a hurry. Similar to Elway’s way but more compact, Chandler’s way is altogether different from Randall Cunningham’s slower, more cumbersome roundhouse motion, the traditional style before Namath.

All season, moreover, Chandler’s passes have been sailing uncommonly straight. Down after down, his darts have kept hitting the bull’s-eye, whether he’s had to go to the deep sideline or lay it up for tight end O.J. Santiago.

Chandler’s negatives, according to those who know him, are that he’s brittle, that at times he seems self-centered, and that he can be flustered, but nobody’s perfect. He has played better in the clutch this season than, for instance, Green Bay’s Brett Favre.

If the Falcons get their pass offense going this time, look for them to get Anderson going too. As a ballcarrier, Anderson combines some of the best of the only two active running backs who outrank him as quality performers, Denver’s Davis and Detroit’s Barry Sanders. He can juke around like Sanders and strike like Davis.

Denver’s schemes: The Broncos have been winning again this season for primarily two reasons: Their running game is as scientific as it is powerful and they have the NFL’s best-designed pass offense.

The Bronco coach, Mike Shanahan, hatched that pass offense for Elway, who was at the top of the NFL’s short list of great down-the-field passers when he went to the Super Bowl and lost with three 1980s Denver teams and when he came back and won last year.

The change last year was the new coach.

In Shanahan’s Denver schemes, whenever Elway needs a big play, either tight end Shannon Sharpe or wide receiver Ed McCaffrey is open, or so it seems. And Elway has the vision to find the right target right now and the arm to hit it.

Vision is, in fact, the quality that marks Denver’s two main players, Elway and Davis. One or the other seems to instantly identify every opponent, every teammate and all the holes in the line and the secondary--Davis if it’s a running play, Elway if it’s a pass.

Davis, in that respect, is uncanny. What’s more, he is in one package the NFL’s leading power runner, off-tackle runner, and downfield cruiser. Traveling with the ball behind the line on an off-tackle play or a sweep, Davis has the vision to identify the hole that’s going to be open before it’s open. Then he cuts into the hole like a sprinter, smashes through like a fullback, and immediately turns into a clever broken-field runner. He is an artist who wastes no motions at all.

While Davis is making his decisions, the blockers in his offensive line hold their blocks until they’re sure that Davis has passed by and is on his way. It has been called the best offensive line in the league, and the boss, Alex Gibbs, has been called the best line coach in the league.

My guess is that the Falcons, on a really good day, could outscore Denver, but it would be a memorable upset.


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