After missing out on history, the rest of the season will taste like mouthwash to the 13-1 Denver Broncos.
Stripped of their "perfect" motivation, the Broncos, who already own home-field advantage in the AFC, are reduced to playing out the string in the final two weeks with little on the line.
If it sounds a little familiar to the Broncos, it should. Hauntingly so.
Two years ago, the Broncos locked up home-field advantage with a dominating 12-1 run through the AFC. Coach Mike Shanahan decided to rest his walking wounded at that point, among them quarterback John Elway. The team lost two of its final three regular-season games, then was ambushed by the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional playoffs, 30-27.
That memory became a rallying cry in Denver's 1997 Super Bowl season. But what does it sound like now? Deja vu?
Sunday's shocking 20-16 loss to the New York Giants left the Broncos pondering their plight. Were their struggles this month the result of carrying an increasingly heavy "unbeaten" burden? Or were they indications that something else is amiss? Have they instead simply lost their edge?
In Week 13, Elway overcame three interceptions with four touchdown passes to beat San Diego, 31-16. In Week 14, Elway had to rally the Broncos from a 31-21 fourth-quarter deficit to win, 35-31.
In the past three weeks, the Broncos have nine take-aways and (( eight giveaways; they have produced two of their three lowest total-yardage games; they allowed a 100-yard rusher for only the second time all season; and they had just one sack in two of the three games.
Bill Romanowski, Denver's ubiquitous linebacker, sounded the note of alarm Sunday.
"There wasn't a sense of urgency in this game, and that bothered me," he said. "There's got to be concern. Forget the streak. This is the time of the year you have to be playing your best, and we're not doing that."
Suggesting it was a wake-up call, Shanahan will take steps not to relive his 1996 nightmare, which the Broncos slept through. A different kind of history is staring him in the face now.
If the season ended today, the Arizona Cardinals (7-7) would beat out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-7) for the NFC's final wild-card berth by virtue of a better conference record (7-4 to 6-5). But the race is far from over.
Arizona finishes with home games against New Orleans and San Diego. Tampa Bay closes on the road against Washington and Cincinnati. The Cardinals have been shaky down the stretch, though, losing three of their past five. The Bucs, meanwhile, recovered from myriad problems to win their past three.
The advantage appears to be with Tampa Bay, even with the Giants and the Saints lurking in the background at 6-8.
The AFC would feature no fewer than four Eastern Division teams if the playoffs started now. The New York Jets hold the No. 2 seed with a better conference record over Jacksonville (8-2 to 7-4). Buffalo, Miami and New England would fill the wild-card slots. The Patriots would get the last spot ahead of Tennessee on the strength of their 27-16 win over the Oilers in Week 3.
Miami appears the most vulnerable with a 6-5 conference record and Denver still on the schedule, followed by Atlanta. Buffalo (9-5) can make its play for the division title Saturday when it plays host to the Jets (10-4). The Bills lost to the Jets in Week 10.
There is this piece of recent history for Ravens fans hoping for a quick turnaround next year. Of the nine head coaches hired after the 1996 season, four took their teams to the playoffs in 1997 -- Pete Carroll in New England, Steve Mariucci in San Francisco, Bobby Ross in Detroit and Jim Fassel with the Giants.
But the biggest turnarounds were achieved by Bill Parcells with the Jets and Dan Reeves with the Atlanta Falcons. In two years, Parcells has elevated the Jets from 1-15 losers to first place in the AFC East and a playoff berth. Reeves fueled the Falcons' rise from the dregs of 3-13 in 1996 to first place in the NFC West with a 12-2 playoff run.
Only two of the nine coaches made no appreciable gains. San Diego fired Kevin Gilbride (6-16) six games into the 1998 season, and Dick Vermeil is only 9-21 with the St. Louis Rams.
Take that, coach
Despite front-office assurances that coach Dom Capers will survive the Carolina Panthers' disastrous 2-12 season, there is reason to wonder.
Two weeks after running back Fred Lane was suspended for a vulgar celebratory act in the end zone at the Meadowlands, veteran linebacker Kevin Greene had to be pulled off of assistant coach Kevin Steele on Sunday.
Although the Panthers have lost nine games by seven or fewer points, there is an appearance Capers has lost the team. A comment from special teamer Michael Bates reinforced that notion Sunday.
Asked to respond to Capers' assessment that the Panthers are not a disciplined team, Bates said: "Well, where does that start at? That's my comment."
Bam Morris' 137 yards rushing against Dallas were the most for a Kansas City back since Barry Word had 152 in 1991. Morris ran for 35 yards and two first downs as the Chiefs ran out the final 2: 48 in a 20-17 win. Miami doesn't even pretend it can run anymore. Faced with first-and-goal on the Jets' 1 Sunday night, the Dolphins went right to the shotgun formation, from which Dan Marino immediately got sacked. In balmy 40-degree temperatures, Rich Stadium was 18,000 shy of capacity for the Bills' win over Oakland. Fans obviously aren't happy about the $63 million in state funds headed Ralph Wilson's way.
Best and worst
Best recovery after getting beat: Redskins cornerback Cris Dishman. After giving up a long pass to Muhsin Muhammad, Dishman caught the Carolina receiver from behind and knocked the ball out of his hands inside the 5 to save a touchdown. That proved huge in a 28-25 Redskins win.
Worst response after getting beat: Panthers linebacker Kevin Greene. Irked by something his position coach said on the bench after a long Redskins scoring drive, Greene had to be pulled off of Kevin Steele in a nasty sideline scene. Greene later apologized but was suspended for one game without pay yesterday.
Best call: Back judge Kirk Dornan, on Amani Toomer's 37-yard touchdown catch to lift the Giants past the Broncos. Dornan correctly overruled field judge David Warden, who initially waved Toomer out of bounds.
Worst call: Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson. Inexplicably, Johnson elected not to go for a two-point conversion after a Miami touchdown cut the Jets' lead to 14-9 with 6: 25 left in the game. A successful two-point play gets the Dolphins within a field goal of tying. Johnson settled for a four-point deficit that required a touchdown to win. He didn't.
Best imitation of John Elway: Giants' Kent Graham. The veteran journeyman authored a six-play, 86-yard touchdown drive to beat the Broncos, including an Elway-esque 23-yard scramble.
Best imitation of a statue: Raiders quarterback Wade Wilson. The 39-year-old veteran was sacked five times by the Bills, and gave up two touchdowns on a fumble and interception.
Biggest winner: The 1972 Dolphins. Unbeaten still, they have no challengers to their perfect throne.
Biggest loser: ABC. With Denver's first loss, the monster "Monday Night Football" showdown in Miami has lost all its luster.
Pub Date: 12/15/98