DENVER -- It started with one of the ugliest halves of John Elway's storied career, with tipped passes and wild throws, with a blown opportunity at the goal line and no points after 30 minutes.
But by the time night fell on Mile High Stadium yesterday, order had replaced chaos and all was right in the Denver Broncos' universe. They are headed back to the Super Bowl because Elway finally found the end zone, because Terrell Davis found his sixth consecutive 100-yard rushing game in the postseason and because Denver's defense found redemption.
In an AFC Championship game that went from listless to frenetic in a two-minute span of the third quarter, the Broncos whipped the New York Jets, 23-10, to advance to Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami in two weeks.
There, in what may be a fitting final chapter of the Elway saga, the future Hall of Fame quarterback will face his first Broncos coach, Dan Reeves, and the spectacularly overachieving Atlanta Falcons.
"We're just thrilled to death to be there," Elway said after taking a reluctant victory lap around Mile High in what has been widely recognized as his final home game. "For the Falcons to go into Minnesota and beat them, they have to be playing great."
Trailing 10-0 three minutes into the second half, Denver (16-2) erupted for 20 unanswered points in the third quarter to send the Jets (13-5) reeling back to the Big Apple. Elway's 11-yard touchdown pass to fullback Howard Griffith got the Broncos back in the game at 10-7, and, after two long Jason Elam field goals, Davis' 31-yard touchdown scamper closed out the flurry.
But the third quarter comeback was largely inspired by Denver's heretofore unsung special teams and defense. And it all was triggered by a blocked Denver punt.
When New York's Curtis Martin ran for a 1-yard touchdown moments after Blake Spence blocked a Tom Rouen punt at the goal line, the Broncos were confronted with a 10-point deficit and the bleak prospect of an early off-season.
The Broncos responded with a 28-yard kickoff return by Vaughn Hebron, and three plays later they were in the end zone. The big play in the drive was a 47-yard pass to Ed McCaffrey, who had gotten open on a deep post pattern when Jets safety Victor Green followed wide receiver Rod Smith on a crossing pattern.
A 6-yard run by Davis went to the 11, and then Elway threw perhaps his best pass of the day to Griffith over the middle.
Next, a stroke of good fortune. With winds gusting up to 32 mph, Elam lifted a high, short kickoff toward the Jets' 30. It caromed off two Jets -- Dave Meggett and James Farrior -- and finally went to Denver's Keith Burns at the 31.
"I'd like to suggest it was a designed play," said Elam, sheepishly. "[But] the wind held it up."
It was the third of six Jets' turnovers, and they would not recover. Elam kicked field goals of 44 and 48 yards on the next two series, and after a 36-yard punt return by Darrien Gordon, Denver finished off the Jets with Davis' touchdown run.
Davis finished with 167 yards to help offset a subpar Elway performance (13-for-34 for 173 yards).
For the second straight week, the Broncos held a huge advantage in rushing yards. After holding the Miami Dolphins to 14 yards rushing on 13 carries, the Broncos duplicated the effort. In two playoff games, Denver has given up 28 yards on 26 carries, an incredible 1.1 average.
Elway, who squandered Denver's only first-half scoring opportunity when his fourth-down pass from the New York 1 was tipped and fell incomplete, appreciated the defensive grit.
"The defense was awesome," he said. "It was maligned late in the year, but the last two weeks, they've given up just six points. You can't put the 1-yard drive on them. We'll need them big in two weeks. They're playing good at the right time."
The Jets' Vinny Testaverde was amazing in the first quarter, completing his first 13 passes for 156 yards. But Martin found no room to run, and by midway through the second quarter the Jets abandoned the running game. They called passes on the last 14 plays of the half and the first two plays of the second half.
"We go into every game with the mind-set of stopping the run," said middle linebacker Glenn Cadrez. "If they complete 13 in a row, or 30, and don't score, who cares? They couldn't make the adjustments to beat us. And Martin has never run on us."
Denver's secondary ranked only 26th in the NFL this season, but when it counted yesterday, the Broncos were up to the task. Jets wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who riddled Jacksonville with two touchdowns and 121 receiving yards in the divisional round a week ago, had a harmless seven catches for 73 yards against cornerbacks Ray Crockett and Gordon.
"For a team to beat us, they'll have to throw 50 passes and they better complete 30 of them," Cadrez said.
Consider it a portent of things to come. Testaverde threw for 356 yards, hitting 31 of 52 passes. And still it wasn't enough to beat the Broncos.
N.Y. Jets 0 3 7 0 -- 10
Denver 0 0 20 3 -- 23
Super Reeves Falcons coach Dan Reeves qualified yesterday for his ninth Super Bowl. His appearances and the roles he played:
Yr. Team Position
'71 Dallas Player-coach
'72 Dallas* Player-coach
'76 Dallas RB coach
'78 Dallas* Off. coordinator
'79 Dallas Off. coordinator
'87 Denver Head coach
'88 Denver Head coach
'90 Denver Head coach
'99 Atlanta Head coach
* -- Super Bowl champion
Pub Date: 1/18/99