EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Nick Buoniconti and Dick Anderson have this tradition. Each season, after the NFL's last undefeated team loses, the former Miami Dolphins teammates share a bottle of champagne.
Last night, in a luxury suite at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, they and other members of the 1972 Dolphins once again were able to toast perfection.
The Dolphins' status as the NFL's only perfect team is still intact. The New York Giants ruined Denver's undefeated season yesterday with a 20-16 victory over the defending Super Bowl champions at Giants Stadium. Kent Graham's 37-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with 48 seconds remaining left the Broncos with a 13-1 record.
"Our main goal is to try to win the world championship again," said Denver quarterback John Elway, who was 19 of 36 for 180 yards and no touchdowns. "If the undefeated season came with that, fine. But the undefeated season doesn't come before the bigger goal."
Graham out-Elwayed Elway. He was 21 of 33 for 265 yards and two touchdowns. And his game-winning throw was one of those last-second, fourth-quarter miracles that the Denver quarterback has patented.
"We talked about it before the game that it might come down to a two-minute drive and if we get a shot to go deep on them, Amani would be the guy," Graham said. "It turned out to be true."
With a first-and-10 at the Denver 37, the Giants (6-8) were nearing game-tying field-goal range. Graham had the option of a short pass to improve field-goal position or an end-zone heave.
"He had two options," Giants coach Jim Fassel said of Graham. "It depended on the matchups and coverages. Kent likes to throw for Toomer because he's made some big plays for him."
From the shotgun, Graham threw in the end zone for Toomer, who caught the pass over Denver's Tito Paul and then fell out of the end zone. Officials Kirk Dornan and David Warden huddled briefly before Dornan threw up his arms.
"The other guy [Dornan] came in and overruled him [Warden]," said Denver safety Tyrone Braxton, who protested the call. "It looked like he had his feet in. I was complaining that he pushed off."
Paul said: "I will take full responsibility for the loss and us not being undefeated. It was a time for me to shine or be the goat and I didn't come up with the play."
New York had just enough offense and plenty of defense. The Giants' aggressive defense was able to prevent Elway from making big plays; his longest completion was for 20 yards.
And while the Broncos controlled the ball, they did little with it. Their first nine points came as a result of 44 plays; their only touchdown came on a seven-play drive.
"We knew coming in it wouldn't be a walkover," said Elway, who is 1-4 against the Giants.
Denver, which scored late in the fourth quarter to beat the Kansas City Chiefs last week, nearly reprised that script. Running back Terrell Davis (147 yards on 28 carries) scored on a 27-yard run with 4: 08 remaining to give Denver a 16-13 lead.
And, after the Graham-Toomer connection, the Broncos had one more shot. Elway's final Hail Mary pass fell incomplete in the Giants' end zone.
"With John Elway on the field, I knew it wasn't over until that last pass hit the ground," Fassel said. "With Denver, you never, ever, ever think you've got 'em until it's really over.
"I think this Giants team will be remembered for this victory. And all those Dolphins players from 1972, they can ship their champagne here."
18 is enough
If the Broncos had won yesterday, they would have set an NFL record for most consecutive regular-season and postseason wins combined. The streaks, with first- and second-year victory totals in parentheses:
No. Team ............ Years
18 Bears (5-13) ..... 1933-'34
18 Bears (7-11) ..... 1941-'42
18 Dolphins (17-1) .. 1972-'73
18 49ers (8-10) ..... 1989-'90
18 Broncos (5-13) ... 1997-'98
Pub Date: 12/14/98