Broncos don't get free pass vs. Marino; Sure, Dolphins limited, but their strength also is Denver's weakness


If the Denver Broncos needed a reminder of how fragile life at the top of the NFL can be, the Green Bay Packers served one up yesterday with the most stunning of finishes.

Two years after they won the Super Bowl, the Packers' fall from grace continued unabated in a last-second, 30-27 wild-card loss to the San Francisco 49ers.

At least two titles short of a dynasty, the Packers have managed to slide from Super Bowl champs to Super Bowl runners-up to wild-card losers in just 24 months.

One was all they get.

And did the Broncos notice?

The moment of truth arrives for Denver next Saturday when it meets the Miami Dolphins at Mile High Stadium in the divisional playoff round. Playing at home, against the one-dimensional Dolphins offense, would appear to make the Broncos prohibitive favorites to reach the AFC championship game.

But that one dimension in Miami's offense -- Dan Marino's still dangerous arm -- points to the one glaring weakness in the Denver defense -- its 26th-rated pass defense. And since the Dolphins already proved they could stop running back Terrell Davis (29 yards, 16 carries) in their 31-21 victory in Week 16 in Miami, can Davis -- with sore ribs -- be the difference maker this time?

Miami looked beatable squeezing past Buffalo, 24-17, at home on Saturday in what was a bad matchup (Jimmy Johnson vs. Doug Flutie) for the Dolphins.

But this week it's strength against strength: Miami's No. 3 defense against Denver's No. 3 offense. It's Marino against John Elway, for the second time in three weeks. And keep in mind that Marino shredded Denver for 355 yards and four touchdowns on Dec. 21. And that Marino is now 2-0 in his career against Elway.

Maybe that's what Elway saw coming when he bemoaned the bye week the Broncos earned with their No. 1 seed in the AFC.

"I think it's horrible," Elway said in December of the bye. "Because two years ago, we had it and last year we didn't."

Two years ago, the Broncos were upset by Jacksonville after drawing the top seed. Last year, they won the Super Bowl as a wild card.

Green Bay wasn't the only giant to fall on wild-card weekend. Three other teams with Super Bowl resumes also bit the dust -- New England, Dallas and Buffalo.

Here's a look ahead:


No. 4 seed Miami (11-6) at No. 1 Denver (14-2); Saturday, 4: 15 p.m.

Miami cornerbacks Terrell Buckley and Sam Madison against wide receivers Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey should supply the most telling matchups.

No. 3 Jacksonville (12-5) at No. 2 N.Y. Jets (12-4); Sunday, 12: 35 p.m.

Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde never beat the Jaguars with the Ravens or Cleveland Browns, but he certainly bruised them. Testaverde averaged 277.7 passing yards per game, and 7.79 yards per pass in six career losses against them.

One thing's certain: The Jaguars cannot afford to play from behind with quarterback Mark Brunell's still-gimpy ankle.


No. 4 San Francisco (13-4) at No. 2 Atlanta (14-2); Saturday, 12: 35 p.m.

The two teams split the season series, each winning at home. But Atlanta has the longest winning streak among the teams still playing (nine), and the hottest runner. Jamal Anderson battered the 49ers for 223 rushing yards on a 5.1 average in the regular season.

The 49ers' best weapon against Atlanta is Jerry Rice, who had 18 catches for 331 yards and three touchdowns in two games this year.

No. 6 Arizona (10-7) at No. 1 Minnesota (15-1); Sunday, 4: 15 p.m.

Potentially the biggest mismatch of the divisional round, the Cardinals' trip to Minneapolis could get ugly. Their No. 21-ranked defense will be up against the Vikings' No. 2 offense. Mismatch? The Vikings scored 28 more touchdowns than the Cardinals in the regular season.

Arizona cornerback Aeneas Williams can't cover Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed by himself, and that's not half the problem. Arizona allowed 50 sacks and turned the ball over 34 times in 16 games. That's a recipe for disaster in the Metrodome.

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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