NFL's final four hold court; Upstart Jets face Mile High challenge at Broncos' house; AFC CHAMPIONSHIP, NFC CHAMPIONSHIP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DENVER -- Quarterback Vinny Testaverde has been here before -- at Mile High Stadium -- to face these Broncos, but never this late in the NFL season or in a game this important.

After 11 years of failing to live up to first-pick fame in the 1987 draft, Testaverde has a chance to go where he's never gone before and silence forever the critics who say he can't win for losing.

If Testaverde can navigate the 13-4 New York Jets past the 15-2 Broncos in today's AFC championship game, he'll have Super Bowl reservations 30 years after another Jets quarterback, Joe Namath, engineered the biggest upset in Super Bowl history.

Could it happen? Could the nine-point underdog Jets beat the defending champion Broncos in their house? Testaverde issued no guarantees last week, but sounded like a man who knew the road to Miami, site of Super Bowl XXXIII.

"I think being in my 12th year and the experiences I've been through helps," said Testaverde, cut last June by the Ravens. "The six years I spent in Tampa, I knew there's been a lot written about that and the way my career has gone.

"But I look at it all positively. The things I've been through, whether good times or tough times, have prepared me for this point in my life and what seems to be the biggest game of my career at this point."

In a game that could easily come down to Testaverde's powerful right arm, these are 10 pivotal factors in today's title game:

1. Game-breakers

Each team has one, and they came up big a week ago. Tailback Terrell Davis punished the Miami Dolphins for 199 rushing yards and two touchdowns in Denver's 38-3 divisional round romp. A good day turned into a great day when the Dolphins over-pursued and Davis cut back for several big plays. Davis is averaging 145.2 rushing yards in the postseason.

"I start with myself," he said. "I don't look at anyone else and say they have to make a play. I always tell myself I am the key to whatever happens. I hold myself accountable to whatever we want to get done."

The Jets counter with wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who proved versatile in a 34-24 win over Jacksonville. The first pick in the 1996 draft, Johnson pulled down nine catches for 121 yards and one touchdown, scored another on a reverse, and, shifting over to play prevent defense, intercepted a Hail Mary pass.

"I'm being used," Johnson said of his role. "That's the key point. [Coach Bill] Parcells and his staff have done a wonderful job."

2. Big farewell

Indications are that Broncos quarterback John Elway will retire after this, his 16th season. If that's the case, the title game will be his last appearance at Mile High Stadium as a player, if not the last ever. And it should be an emotionally charged affair for Elway and the fans. Expect a big crowd reaction to everything he does.

Elway missed four games with injuries this season, but still threw 22 touchdown passes and finished second in the AFC in passer efficiency to Testaverde. Elway's career record, counting the postseason, is 160-89-1 going into today.

3. Big arm

By contrast, Testaverde has a career mark of 63-85-1, but won 13 of 14 starts for the Jets this season. He won the AFC passing title with 29 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. This is where the Jets seem to have a big advantage. The Broncos were only 26th in pass defense this season, and gave up more than 300 yards passing in two of their last five games.

"He's throwing the ball away and not forcing the ball," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, "and that's one of the reasons they're so consistent offensively."

Said Broncos safety Tyrone Braxton, "He's always been a great quarterback, but he's a streaky quarterback. We need to get pressure on him and get him in a bad rhythm."

4. Brain trust

The matchup of head coaches Parcells and Shanahan is one to savor. Parcells has taken his team to three Super Bowls, and Shanahan has gone to five -- four as an assistant coach. But no less intriguing is the battle of coordinators -- Denver's Gary Kubiak on offense and New York's Bill Belichick on defense.

Although Shanahan calls the plays, Kubiak prepares the offense. Belichick has a celebrated reputation for finding defensive antidotes, and the Jets will need one to contain Davis. Coaching a defense that has few recognizable names, this season is one of Belichick's best efforts.

5. Tricks of the trade

Each team is likely to come up with something different. Shanahan inserted an extra blocker for Davis last week against Miami, and it worked splendidly. Parcells got the ball in Johnson's hands 12 times a week ago, including the interception on defense.

Parcells feels the Jets must take some risks to win at Mile High. How far he goes bears watching. Last season, his gambler's touch allowed Ray Lucas and Leon Johnson to throw passes in a crucial Week 17 game at Detroit. Both were intercepted, and it cost the Jets a playoff berth.

6. Defensive inspiration

Both teams have an inspirational leader on defense. For the Broncos, it's outside linebacker Bill Romanowski. For the Jets, it's Bryan Cox. Both players push the envelope when it comes to aggressive play.

Romanowski sounded almost giddy talking about the postseason. "These are the kind of games you dream about," he said. "It's not about money. It's about playing at a certain level, about playing for the ring."

7. Fast getaway

The Broncos almost always get off to a fast start. They outscored their opponents by 90 points in the first quarter in the regular season, and jumped on Miami to lead 14-0.

That will be the key for the Jets -- staying with the Broncos early or getting a lead so they won't have to abandon their game plan.

In the Broncos' five-game postseason winning streak, they have outscored their opponents by 90-38 in the first half.

8. Sharpe's cutting edge

When it comes to trash-talking, few are more effective than Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe. His penetrating commentary during the game has sparked more than a little mayhem.

Can he get any of the Jets out of their game the way he did Kansas City's Derrick Thomas this season?

9. Unlikely heroes

Who could emerge from the shadows to make a major contribution? Among the possibilities is Denver safety Steve Atwater, who had a big Super Bowl a year ago but a disappointing 1998 season. Or Broncos fullback Howard Griffith, who had a big catch in the Super Bowl but more often blocks for Davis.

For the Jets, receiver Wayne Chrebet could have a big day in the Denver secondary. And rookie right tackle Jason Fabini, a fourth-round draft pick, faces veteran Neil Smith in a critical matchup.

10. Mile High advantage

The Broncos have won 18 consecutive games at Mile High and are 32-3 at home since Shanahan took over. Couple that with the Jets having had one fewer day of preparation and rest, and Denver has a real home-field advantage.

Elway professed that last week's game "was as loud as it's ever been in Mile High."

Today should be louder.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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