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Shanahan keeps rein on Broncos; Strategy, discipline top coach's game plan; AFC CHAMPIONSHIP


DENVER -- There isn't much that happens around the Denver Broncos that doesn't pass the scrutiny of coach Mike Shanahan.

When he watched defensive end Neil Smith make a halfhearted charge at Miami quarterback Dan Marino in last week's AFC divisional playoff game, he brought it to the attention of the 11-year veteran on the sideline.

"I thought he could have rushed harder, and I tried to communicate that with him," Shanahan said later.

Result: Not long after, Smith scooped up a Miami fumble and lumbered 79 yards to a touchdown that finalized a 38-3 Broncos rout.

A day later, when Shanahan read a quote from tight end Shannon Sharpe calling Marino a "loser," he nearly had convulsions.

"I cringed when I read that," Shanahan said. "I was really disappointed. Dan Marino's no loser."

Result: On Tuesday, the Broncos' first work day of the new week, a penitent Sharpe issued a full apology to Marino. Sharpe didn't say Shanahan mandated the apology, but few doubted it.

This, then, is the 46-year-old coach who will lead the Broncos into Sunday's AFC championship game at Mile High Stadium against Bill Parcells and the New York Jets. He is bold enough to chew out a veteran defensive end for slacking off in the middle of a blowout win, forceful enough to insist that his most outrageous trash talker retract a needless statement about a conquered foe.

Shanahan is a shrewd motivator on a team that talks loud, plays hard and takes very few prisoners. Yet, he may be an even better schemer.

Matched against one of the two teams that beat the Broncos this season in that divisional game last week, Shanahan took away the one thing the Dolphins had going for them -- their aggressive defense.

He created an unbalanced line by inserting an extra blocker, revised the blocking schemes and turned Terrell Davis loose in the Dolphins' secondary. Davis didn't stop running until he had 199 yards and two touchdowns, and the Dolphins, in shock, were boarding an airplane for home.

Shanahan even put in a play that had 38-year-old John Elway rolling out -- and running for a big first down. "I was shocked as anybody that was going in the game plan," Elway said later.

"The coaches drew up a great game plan," Davis said.

How big a departure was it from what the Broncos normally do?

"Drastic," said Vaughn Hebron, the Broncos' kick returner and backup running back.

It wasn't the first time Shanahan turned a game with a brilliant piece of strategy. In last year's Super Bowl victory over the Green Bay Packers, he schemed a way to take Packers safety LeRoy Butler out of his blitzing mode.

So, now comes Parcells, the ultimate big-game coach in the NFL today. How good is Parcells?

He is the first coach to take three franchises to the conference championship game. He is 3-0 in AFC or NFC title games. He has two Super Bowl championships.

If Shanahan's reputation is growing by the week, the active role model for coaching legends will stand across from him on the other sideline Sunday. There is no more worthy opponent you can beat in the NFL.

Shanahan, who was studying film of the Jets before their 34-24 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday, can't help but get excited at the prospect.

"I think you always get a little juiced up when you're going against a coach who has had a lot of success, and obviously a coach who has a couple of Super Bowl rings," Shanahan said.

There are any number of intriguing asides to this marvelous coaching matchup. Shanahan, for instance, beat Parcells' New England Patriots handily in the only two meetings between them as head coaches. The Broncos bombed the Patriots, 37-3, in 1995, Shanahan's first year in Denver. In New England's Super Bowl season of 1996, the Broncos won again, 34-8.

Think that doesn't weigh on the man affectionately known as the Tuna?

"I didn't have a good Patriots team the first time we played them," Parcells said. "The second time the game got out of hand and, anyway, we played them early in the season. We were a much better team by the end."

Parcells ordered an ill-conceived fake punt in that second game, a mistake he isn't likely to make again.

These are two of the game's best coaches at preparing a team for a big game. Keyshawn Johnson, the Jets' Pro Bowl wide receiver, called Parcells "the master of preparation" this week.

But the Broncos don't want to hear it.

Asked about going against the Parcells mystique, Davis had this to say: "I don't think about that. We played Parcells two times when he was with New England. Mike can't play the game, Parcells can't play the game. It's up to the players on the field. They can design the game plans, but we have to execute."

NFL playoffs

Conference championships

NFC: Atlanta at Minnesota, Sunday, 12: 35 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Vikings by 11

AFC: New York Jets at Denver, Sunday, 4: 05 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Line: Broncos by 9

Pub Date: 1/15/99

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