The Denver Broncos' victory in Super Bowl XXXII was a reaffirmation of sport on almost every imaginable level. After 13 years of National Football Conference dominance in the National Football League championship game--a dynasty signaled by the Bears' 46-10 thrashing of the New England Patriots, though the streak began the year before that--the American Football Conference finally broke through. For 13 years the better team not merely won but usually romped in the Super Bowl, seeming to remove all doubt from the outcome before the game even took place. That's a sad state of affairs in sport. It's produced a why-bother mentality that has become entrenched locally, where fans have been spoiled by the Bulls' five championships, each one--thrilling as it was--won in convincing, almost preordained fashion. (The Bulls have never been extended to seven games in the National Basketball Association finals.) There have been notable upsets in other sports during the last decade--Buster Douglas's heavyweight title victory over Mike Tyson and the Cincinnati Reds' sweep of the Oakland A's in the 1990 World Series spring to mind--but the NFL and the NBA got to the point where it seemed the championship games weren't even necessary. For the past several years I've been rooting for a Super Bowl rout. If the AFC couldn't advance a credible champion to play on Super Sunday, then let the game be a disgrace; let it cease to be sport and turn instead into an annual cultural event, like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. The Oscars have been more competitive in recent years than the Super Bowl has been, and the new TV advertisements trotted out for the massive audience have usually been more interesting than the game. In that context, the Broncos' victory over the Packers was a reminder--to quote the sports cliche--of why they play the game. After 13 years, football fans specifically and sports fans in general needed the reminder.
In the Super Bowl's 32-year history there was only one bigger upset, only one that packed a larger impact: the New York Jets' 16-7 win over the Baltimore Colts in 1969. That, of course, was the American Football League's first victory over the National before their merger, and it established parity between the former rivals, especially when combined with the Kansas City Chiefs' win over the Minnesota Vikings the following year. Yet it should be pointed out that the American Football Conference--the body that superseded the AFL--remained inferior to the senior NFC. It's true, the AFC soon took the lead in Super Bowls won, but only with the help of the Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers, teams that began building the nucleus of their championship squads when they were still in the NFL. When the Broncos beat the Packers a week ago Sunday, they joined only the Jets, Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, and Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders as original AFL teams to win the Super Bowl. In 32 years, that's not much of a showing.
Still, the surprising Broncos' victory was fully deserved, as convincing in its way as any of those NFC slaughters of the previous 13 years. Packer backers moaned afterward that they'd had a bad day, that they had underestimated the Broncos, that if given another chance it wouldn't even be close. That, in the words of my friend Boom Boom's father, is hard cheese. The Broncos deserved to win; they earned the win. How exactly they earned it is what made this Super Bowl the most satisfying in years.
The tactics may have been complex or elaborate from play to play, but more often than not they tended toward meat-and-potatoes football on both sides. What this game really came down to was one simple face-to-face confrontation: Denver's offensive line against Green Bay's defensive line. The Broncos' line--center Tom Nalen, guards Mark Schlereth and Brian Habib, and tackles Gary Zimmerman and Tony Jones--was the lightest in the league and the only one without a 300-pound player. The Packers, by contrast, had 300-pound all-time sack leader Reggie White and 340-pound (at least) Gilbert Brown on the left-hand side of the line, matched with fearsome Santana Dotson and Gabe Wilkins on the right. Yet the Broncos' offensive line--fit, trim, and hardened by months of training in the mile-high atmosphere of Denver--whipped the Packers up and down the field. They came down off their mountains and wore the Pack down. White's statistical line for the game: a solitary tackle.
Not only was the Denver line in perfect sync, executing complex trap plays and pulling guards and tackles for sweeps around end, but running back Terrell Davis displayed that rare quality of being utterly in sync with his line. Starting from deep in the backfield, he would take a pitch or a handoff from quarterback John Elway and then wait and wait and wait until the line opened a crease, and then he was through it like a mouse down a hole. Davis ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns (Elway jogged in on a bootleg for the other) while missing the second quarter with a migraine suffered after he had his bell rung early on; he also had to overcome a fumble in his first carry of the second half. He was named most valuable player, and deservedly so, but I think it might have been a better gesture on the part of the media to vote a five-way MVP award to the Denver offensive linemen. They had steel-tempered their unity over the last two seasons by enforcing a gag order against all media interviews, which is part of why they came into the game as no-names. It would have been noble of the media to grudgingly conclude that, hey, there might have been something to that silence. Fat chance, however.
Much was made, in some quarters, of how the Pack conceded Denver's go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes in order to get the ball back to Brett Favre on offense. Yet the Packers' defense was whupped by that time, as TV reporter John Dockery explained on the sidelines, showing Brown sucking oxygen between series and a gassed White sitting out critical plays during that final Denver drive. It was an astute decision by Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren to cut his losses, save time, and wager all on a comeback score. In fact, I imagined an epic, poetic ending--at least where Chicago fans are concerned. After the Broncos scored on Davis's third TD to go ahead 31-24, I figured Favre would march the Packers down for an answering touchdown. Then, I thought, Holmgren--knowing that his defense was cashed in--would have gone for the win with a two-point conversion. The ironies of that move shouldn't need to be explained to any fan of the Bears, who lost to the Pack earlier this season when Chicago coach Dave Wannstedt made an ill-advised and ill-fated decision to go for a winning two-point conversion at home and with the momentum clearly in his favor. As it was, my fantasy was moot. Favre misfired on a couple of key passes and the Broncos halted the drive to claim victory.
That's how I'd thought the Super Bowl would go once before. When the Broncos last traveled to San Diego for the big game, ten years ago, they had the better team than the NFC representative, the Washington Redskins (a Washington team that blew through Chicago to get there, beating the dissension-riddled poststrike Bears and their hubris-filled coach Mike Ditka, with his midget stand-in quarterback, Doug Flutie). I figured the Broncos would come down off their mountain and grind the Skins into the sod. Yet the Skins, behind quarterback Doug Williams, who was not merely in the zone but beyond it into another dimension entirely, blitzed the Broncs with 35 points in the second quarter and coasted to victory. Denver's other three Super Bowl losses--in 1978 to the Dallas Cowboys, in 1987 to the unstoppable New York Giants (whom they actually led 10-9 at the half), and in 1990 to the firepower San Francisco 49ers of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice--were all to be expected. It was that 1988 loss that hurt.
The four losses combined, however, to humble the Denver fans, who are among the best sports fans in the nation. My parents moved out there in the 80s, at about the time John Elway was choosing a career as the Broncos' quarterback over becoming the New York Yankees' shortstop, so I have some experience observing Mile High fandom. They're insane, of course, but in a way that is much more reserved than in New York or Boston or Philadelphia or other eastern cities. They're very much like fans of the Bears, only less cynical and more true blue (as this season proved). Still, by all reports they were a little more tempered this time; they barely dared to hope. My father, who'd stood up at my wedding dinner the night before the Broncs met the Skins, hooked his thumbs inside his belt, and begun his toast by saying, "I'll take all the Washington money I can find" (a stance all the more bold since my wife and much of her family were from the nation's capital), was now saying over the phone, "Well, I think we've got a chance." We agreed it was up to the offensive line to carry the Broncos and Elway home.
Even if that's the way it turned out, it isn't quite fair to say Elway was carried. This in fact was the most satisfying element in the Denver win: Elway finally earning the championship ring he has long deserved. Ten years ago he was a gridiron wizard, with a rifle arm, a derring-do scrambling style, and an unflappable demeanor. Favre has said he modeled himself after Elway. The Elway who played in Super Bowl XXXII, however, was 37 and fragile to the point where he'd almost suffered a career-ending arm injury in the preseason. He played within himself much more than he ever had before, while occasionally returning to his old daring ways running the ball--as in his third-quarter dive for a first-and-goal in which he was sent spinning like a propeller by two Green Bay defenders who'd hit him simultaneously. He bounced up as he bounced up all day and later handed the ball to Davis for the score that put the Broncos ahead 24-17, after the Packers had rallied to tie from a 17-7 first-half deficit.
Favre won the statistical battle, completing an impressive 25 of 42 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns to Elway's 12-of-22 day for a mere 123 yards. Both threw an interception that led to opposing touchdowns. But Favre also coughed up a fumble that produced a Denver field goal. In their final drives, Elway was content to hand the ball to Davis or dump a pass into the flat to Howard Griffith. Favre, meanwhile, tried to force passes between double-teams or threw against his body while on the move, resulting in not leading his receiver enough. In the end the old vet won with self-control, and in that he showed the young whippersnapper there were still lessons to be learned.
During the week leading up to the Super Bowl Favre rubbed it in. He had won the big one and Elway hadn't, and he insisted, however humbly, that this made him the better quarterback. Green Bay safety LeRoy Butler displayed even less class, saying he didn't want to be remembered as being part of the team that lost to Elway in the Super Bowl. Maybe it was mere gamesmanship, but in the end those words seemed to have sealed the Packers' fate. They were too fat and too full of themselves, while the Broncos were too hungry and too intent on their goal to be denied. In the days after the Super Bowl I kept seeing the TV ad that found Elway, in the midst of a crush of photographers, saying with that trademark horse-size smile that, yes, he was finally going to Disney World. That ad, no matter how many times I saw it, gave me a sappy, warm feeling--a feeling that comes from an unexpected upset, a feeling I had forgotten was a part of sport. Once again Super Sunday found its greatest expression in a TV commercial, but this time for all the right reasons.