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Here come the Broncos. Revived by quarterback Jake Plummer's return from injury, Coach Mike Shanahan's Denver team can take another giant step toward the playoffs next Sunday against Cleveland at Denver, where Bronco tailback Clinton Portis scored last Sunday on runs of 11, 1, 59, 28 and 53 yards.
After Cleveland, it gets tougher for Denver in its last two at Indianapolis and at Green Bay, where winter weather could be another enemy.
On a fast field, Plummer and Portis are probably the premier pair of offensive strikers in football.
Individually, the edge might go to Tom Brady, Steve McNair, Michael Vick, Jamal Lewis or LaDainian Tomlinson.
But as a twin threat in clear weather, only Green Bay's Brett Favre & Ahman Green or Kansas City's Trent Green & Priest Holmes seem to be a match for Plummer & Portis. And Kansas City (11-2) fell to Denver (8-5) Sunday, 45-27, as Plummer completed 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and Portis raced for 218 yards. Outplayed in the first half, 21-17, the Broncos came on aggressively in the second half, when Portis kept powering through the line and flying through open fields.
Rams Quit Longball and Also Shortball
THE ST. LOUIS RAMS can't expect a cakewalk in Seattle Sunday against their only rival for first in the NFC West, the wildly inconsistent Seahawks. For, sadly, the Rams have forgotten how to play pass offense.
Their spectacular turn-of-the-century Super Bowl teams attacked the whole field with an effective, lively assortment of literally all kinds of passes, some very long, some very short.
In Cleveland Monday night, by contrast, Ram Coach Mike Martz strangely called mostly 15- and 16-yard passes that the Browns defensed knowingly — so knowingly, in fact, that Martz's offense was restricted to four field goals.
And those 12 points weren't enough to win a 26-20 game that the Rams would have lost but for the 14 points Martz's defense earned with two interceptions by defensive back Aeneas Williams, who ran one touchdown all the way, 46 yards, and set up the second — a touchdown pass play.
A 16-yard pass play, of course.
This was delivered by quarterback Marc Bulger to veteran wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who, in the days when the Rams were throwing long passes, showed himself to be one of the great deep receivers of all time. Wide receiver Tory Holt can also go get it. And Bulger can throw it. He's a marksman at 30-plus yards.
There was none of that Monday. Nor did Martz call much short stuff, the quick hot ones that Holt and particularly tailback Marshall Faulk run so well after catches at the line of scrimmage, or just behind, or three yards beyond, or five. Instead, the Rams, who used to come out passing, came out running with Faulk, who on first-down carries totaled six yards on his first six runs and was never a touchdown factor. The Rams are 10-3 and playoff-bound, but they can play better than this.
The Patriots' Winter Wonderland
THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, who are nearer the North Pole than any other NFL contender, are getting another Southern team they can roast next Sunday, Jacksonville, which should expect even less luck at Foxboro than Miami and Dallas had in the last two weeks. Both were blanked there, 12-0.
The Patriots' Foxboro home has become the new winter wonderland capital of the league, replacing Green Bay, whose team (7-6) is struggling this year and not likely to see any playoff games this winter, thank the lords of football.
At the moment, the Patriots (11-2), who will be heading for their 10th straight win in the Jacksonville game, are leading the home-field race to the Super Bowl. And with only the New York Jets and Buffalo left on the Patriot schedule, Coach Bill Belichick's team is looking forward to playing the whole playoff series in wintry New England before taking off for the Super Bowl.
The prospect of a January game at a site just this side of the North Pole is hardly the best of news for the AFC's other contenders. A January football game at Foxboro isn't a football test. It's a test of who can win in a New England freeze.
The NFL got itself in this fix by allowing Belichick to coach in New England and by allowing the Patriots to bring in Tom Brady as their quarterback. Together, Belichick and Brady are a handful everywhere they go into the more livable areas of a big country. At home, in January, with temperatures under freezing, and snow doubtless forecast, they are probably unbeatable.
Coming Next: Manning vs. Vick
THE INDIANAPOLIS COLTS and the four other AFC contenders — Denver, Kansas City, Tennessee and Baltimore — are all looking up at New England today both in geographical terms and in won-lost terms. On a neutral field, I'd take Denver, but the NFL's club owners don't believe in neutral fields for playoff games.
On a football field in the winter wonderland of the Boston area, a primary football question is whether any of the Patriots' opponents can score. The last two couldn't.
The Colts, who are home Sunday to the rejuvenated Atlanta Falcons — meaning passer Peyton Manning vs. runner-passer Michael Vick — are widely believed to have the best shot at the AFC title. But under Coach Tony Dungy, the Colts are turning out to be the dead opposite of an aggressive football team.
They're led by potentially aggressive offensive stars Manning and tailback Edgerrin James, who, however, were the principals last Sunday in another muted, tightly controlled offense that barely held off the injured Titans at Tennessee, 29-27.
Afterward, Manning seemed proud of it, but that could be because he doesn't know how good he is. Although Indianapolis' coaches insist on running James to set up Manning's passes, this has the look of a team that would pound most opponents — instead of just squeaking by — if it attacked with Manning's passes to set up James' runs.
An attacking offense in modern football is one that lines up on first down and hits the other team with various kinds of passes — short, long, quick, delayed and on bootleg plays, among many others. Then it follows up with either another kind of pass or with a quick strike by its running back. That's how Plummer and Portis attacked Kansas City in the second half Sunday. By contrast, the Colts played as if they're certain that an intercepted pass is the worst possible human disaster.
The Single-Dimension Titans
THE TITANS keep losing these days in an identical way — in Colt fashion — with a potential NFL MVP in ailing but active quarterback Steve McNair and with ground-offense players who are demonstrating more explosiveness in this half of the season than they showed in the first half.
But as coached by archconservative Jeff Fisher, the Titans, with multiple-dimension athletes, are still playing single-dimension football. And he's killing them.
On any given Sunday, for as long as the score is close, the Titans run tailback Eddie George as if they were a single-dimension running team. Then when they fall behind, they turn to McNair's passes as if they were a single-dimension passing team.
They looked up McNair again in the fourth quarter Sunday after Fisher finally if reluctantly abandoned his running game and asked his quarterback to save him in the final minutes, when the Titans appeared to be a beaten team, 29-13, unless McNair could somehow rally them to two touchdowns and a pair of two-point conversions.
Throwing on nearly every down (after Fisher had allowed him to throw but sporadically in the first three quarters), McNair drove the Titans to a sudden touchdown and sneaked across for the conversion that made it an eight-point touchdown, narrowing the Colt lead to 29-21.
Then, following a typical, conservative, three-and-out Colt response, McNair, again throwing on almost every down, drove the Titans to a second touchdown that could have been a second eight-point touchdown with a second two-point conversion. But as the Colts made a heads-up defensive play, McNair's last pass, a try for two points, was tipped away to preserve Indianapolis' 29-27 win.
As usual, McNair's was the kind of McNair football that would have turned back Manning easily if in the first three quarters he had played it — or something like it.
Shanahan Integrates Plummer, Portis
THE BRONCOS in the Cleveland game Sunday will have a chance to prove that they can play with style in consecutive weeks which they haven't really done lately.
To get a leg up on Kansas City this week after the Chiefs had won the first half by four points, the Broncos, in the third quarter, drove out a 78-yard 12-play touchdown on a march that illustrated the way a good modern NFL team does it when integrating passes by a quarterback as good as Plummer with ground plays by a running back like Portis.
Of the 12 calls by Shanahan and his staff on that drive, six were for first-down plays, for which they sent in three passes and three runs. Amongst Plummer's three first-down passes, Portis ran twice on first down, and wide receiver Ron Smith, on an end-around, ran once.
Confounding the coaches who claim that third down is the most important NFL down, Shanahan's game plan was plainly designed to keep the Broncos out of third down. Thus he was obliged to make only one third-down call on that drive. And for that, Shanahan was ready with a special play, a Plummer throw to 6-foot-5 wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who otherwise these days isn't much involved in an offense based on passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe and wide receivers Smith and Ashley Lelie as well as running back Portis.
With a first down at the Kansas City 5, the Broncos tried Portis, who gained two yards. Then on second and goal at the three-yard line, Shanahan chose a Plummer pass that went for a touchdown to reserve running back Reuben Droughns, surprising the Chiefs.
Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the way the new Bronco quarterback seems to be catching on to the Shanahan system. There were those who, watching Plummer in recent years on the Arizona team, said he'd never make it anywhere. Moreover, his long absence with a broken foot this season has severely retarded the Broncos, leaving them with no chance for a home-field game in the playoffs.
Because of his limited experience on a real NFL team, Plummer, clearly, isn't the quarterback he might or quite probably will be for Denver. Normally it takes a season or two at the least, in the same system, to make an NFL quarterback. And Plummer's had hardly a half season. The promise, though, is there.
Bob Oates' book, Sixty Years of Winners, is available at latimes.com/bookstore or by calling (800) 246-4042 ($16.95).