Under Miami's big top, show 'em time; Respect major theme on both sides of ball; SUPER BOWL XXXIII


DENVER -- Of all the story lines that figure to play out over the next two weeks for Super Bowl XXXIII, the one that may hold the most staying power is one of redemption.

There is Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, who proved he deserved better than a seventh-round call in the 1994 draft.

There is Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis, who leaped from the obscurity of the sixth round in 1995 to become the NFL's MVP in 1998.

There is Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler, a career journeyman who played for five teams before he found a home with the Falcons in 1997.

There is the Denver defense, which was maligned after consecutive losses in the regular season, but has given up a total of 28 rushing yards in two playoff games.

And then there is Falcons coach Dan Reeves, who was fired by the Broncos and the New York Giants this decade, yet brought the haggard Atlanta franchise from 3-13 ignominy to NFL utopia in two years.

It's all fitting, because this is the Super Bowl no one expected.

It's Chandler vs. John Elway.

It's Reeves vs. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, a former Reeves lieutenant in Denver.

It's the Dirty Bird vs. the defending champs.

But the most intriguing matchup may be the running backs be cause of the path less traveled, from long shot to elite.

Davis and Anderson ranked 1-2 in the league in rushing this season, combining for 3,854 yards. Davis became the fourth back in NFL history to surpass 2,000, with 2,008, averaging 5.1 a carry, with 21 touchdowns. Anderson rushed a league-record 410 times for 1,846 yards on a 4.5 average, with 14 touchdowns.

Intriguing? They will earn their yards at Miami's Pro Player Stadium on Jan. 31. The Falcons' defense ranked second against the run in the regular season; the Broncos' defense ranked third.

In the fraternity of running backs, they hold a special bond.

"I talk to Jamal every week," Davis said. " 'I'll see you in Miami,' is what he told me last week. Jamal is a strong runner, and our defense will have their hands full."

These are teams built with similar strengths and weaknesses. Both possess balanced offenses with big-play receivers to complement the running backs. Chandler threw for 25 touchdowns and had 12 interceptions this season; Elway threw for 22 and had 10.

Both teams are vulnerable in the secondary: The Broncos ranked 26th in pass defense, the Falcons 21st.

The one area in which the two teams are dissimilar is experience. The Broncos have six rookies on their roster among 12 players who are either in their first or second years. The Falcons have nine rookies, with 17 in their first or second seasons.

And experience should play a factor in a game with as many distractions as the Super Bowl.

"Having been through it before, our experience will definitely help us," said Elway, who will be starting in his fifth Super Bowl, more than any other quarterback.

Both the Broncos and Falcons proved resilient in conference championship-game victories. The Broncos (16-2) overturned a 10-point deficit to beat the New York Jets, 23-10, in the AFC title game, and the Falcons (16-2) erased a 20-7 deficit to outlast the top-seeded Minnesota Vikings, 30-27, in overtime.

Both teams deserve to be here. Since the midway point of the 1997 season, no team has a better record than the Falcons' 22-4 (.846). The Broncos follow with a 25-5 record (.833).

It is somewhat ironic that Reeves, who underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery this season, will take his upstart Falcons to a game against his former team.

He took the Broncos to three Super Bowls during his 12-year reign, the last in the 1989 season. Each of those clubs was an overachieving team that got hammered by more physical NFC teams. Each loss was worse than the one before.

After breaking in Elway as a rookie in 1983, Reeves now has the chance to send him into retirement with a loss.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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