This year's theme: Put up or shut up; Falcons, Broncos clash amid coaches' rivalry, trash-talk sessions; SUPER BOWL XXXIII

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MIAMI -- It was a Super Bowl buildup like few of the 32 that preceded it.

Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves rekindled a 7-year-old war with unsuspecting Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan.

Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan issued a victory guarantee, wore a studded dog collar and said Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe looked like a horse.

Sharpe's retort was even more biting: Buchanan was ugly. On top of that, he was a cross-dresser. Or so Sharpe heard.

Two more Falcons, Cornelius Bennett and Terance Mathis, both confessed to excessive partying/drinking in their past.

The 7 1/2-point underdog Falcons were on the attack -- playfully or otherwise -- last week, and these were only the preliminaries before the main event. What will Super Bowl XXXIII bring tonight? More of the same?

"I talk some junk on the field," said Atlanta defensive end Chuck Smith. "Everybody talks junk. Even some quarterbacks talk junk.

"The '90s are the decade of talking junk."

Minus guarantees, confessions, insults and blood feuds, this would have been like any other Super Bowl week.

Thanks, guys.

Assuming a football game breaks out at Pro Player Stadium, and while Sharpe and Buchanan rest their vocal cords, here's a look at the 10 pivotal factors that could decide the Super Bowl:

1. Battle of the backs

If you want to win the Super Bowl, come equipped with a heavy-duty running back. Both the defending champion Broncos and the Falcons have one. The team that won the ground war has won 28 of the 32 Super Bowls, including 16 of the last 17.

Denver's Terrell Davis, the NFL's fourth 2,000-yard rusher and its MVP, is averaging 148 rushing yards for seven career postseason games. His bread-and-butter is the cutback off the toss play.

Atlanta has its own cutback king in 234-pound Jamal Anderson, a burgeoning star who finished second in the league in rushing.

2. The ex-Colts

One of the curiosities of this Super Bowl is that the Colts drafted both starting quarterbacks. Baltimore took John Elway with the first pick of the 1983 draft, then dealt him to the Broncos. Indianapolis picked Chris Chandler in the third round in 1988. Five teams and 11 years later, Chandler made the playoffs for the first time. Now he's trying to beat Elway.

While Elway has struggled in the postseason (47.4 percent completions, 355 yards, two touchdowns), Chandler has played exceptionally well (64.5 percent, 509 yards, three touchdowns).

Play-action passes could be big, depending on which team is able to establish the run.

3. Turnovers

The Falcons led the NFL with 44 take-aways this season, including an amazing 25 fumble recoveries. They pry the ball loose. They were plus-20 in turnovers, which also led the league.

The Broncos had 30 take-aways -- only 11 fumble recoveries -- and a turnover ratio of plus-10.

Neither running back is known for putting the ball on the ground, so turnovers more likely will come through the air.

4. Red zone

Capitalizing on scoring opportunities inside the opponent's 20-yard line will be vital. The Broncos led the AFC this season, scoring 40 touchdowns on 63 trips to the red zone, a .635 percentage.

The Falcons ranked fifth in the NFC, cashing in 27 of 46 opportunities for a .587 percentage.

5. The Guarantee

Buchanan made his guarantee win on a cable TV show before he came to Miami. "At the time, I said it out of fun," he said upon arriving. "What is a guarantee? It's standing on faith alone."

He'll be standing at left corner alone once the game starts. And the Broncos have a history of using every little perceived slight against them as motivation. Expect Buchanan to hear about his guarantee all night long. And expect him to pay for it.

Said teammate Chuck Smith: "That might be the lowest-key guarantee in the history of the Super Bowl."

6. Stopping the run

The Falcons were No. 2 in run defense this season, the Broncos No. 3. The defense that holds that ranking, and can slow down the other team's running back, takes a giant step toward victory.

The fight in the trenches will be worth watching. The Falcons are unsung and, until last week, were unknown. This is their chance to make a lasting mark.

7. Stopping the pass

If both teams are strong defending the run, they're both vulnerable defending the pass. The Falcons ranked 21st in pass defense, the Broncos 26th. Could the Broncos' shaky coverage be the reason their run defense numbers are so low?

And if the defenses commit eight players to stopping the run, that leaves the defensive backs in man-to-man coverage and opens the door to more big plays. It will be a game of cat-and-mouse on defense. The more clever team might win.

8. Unlikely heroes

Atlanta's unheralded defensive line of Smith, Shane Dronett, Travis Hall and Lester Archambeau whipped what many considered the best offensive line in the NFL in Minnesota. Now they'll test the smallest, quickest, smartest offensive line in the league. Still another Falcon to watch is returner-receiver Tim Dwight, who is a potential game-breaker.

For the Broncos, fullback Howard Griffith is usually good for one big catch per playoff game (he had a touchdown reception in the AFC title game). Strong safety Tyrone Braxton might make what could be his final game for Denver a memorable one. He'll cover tight end O. J. Santiago. And kick returner-cornerback Darrien Gordon is another potential big-play man for the Broncos.

9. Confession good for the soul

Cornelius Bennett spent much of the week preaching the evils of the party life at the Super Bowl. He was on the party scene when the Buffalo Bills lost four Super Bowls. Now he's a Falcon, a team leader, and has advised his teammates to get their rest.

We'll see if they listened.

10. The Feud

Although Reeves ultimately apologized for allegations that Shanahan undermined him when he coached the Broncos, the issue is hardly forgotten. The coaching rivalry might burn as intense as any rivalry on the field tonight.

It might also show at the end of the game. If either coach has a chance to score an in-your-face touchdown, don't expect him to take a knee.

Facts and figures

Site: This is the eighth Super Bowl to be played in Miami and the third at Pro Player Stadium. CBS Radio announcers: Howard David, play-by-play; Matt Millen, analyst.

Fox TV announcers: Pat Summerall, play-by-play; John Madden, analyst.

Seating capacity: 74,000.

National anthem: Cher.

Players' shares: Winners, $53,000 per man. Losers, $32,500 per man.

Uniforms: Falcons will be the home team and will wear their black jerseys. Broncos are the visiting team and will wear white.

Attendance: To date, 2,553,491 have attended Super Bowls. The largest crowd was 103,985 for Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

Next year: Super Bowl XXXIV will be played Jan. 30, 2000, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Vs. spread: Falcons 12-5; Broncos 11-7.

Vs. common opponents: Falcons 4-1; Broncos 4-2.

Series: Broncos lead 6-3.

Last meeting: Broncos won, 29-20, on Sept. 21, 1997, in Atlanta.

Postseason records: Falcons 4-5; Broncos 15-11.

Notable: Falcons led NFL in time of possession with 33 minutes, 10 seconds. Falcons scored club-record six defensive TDs. Falcons' 44 take-aways led NFL, including league-leading 25 fumble recoveries. Broncos are 10th defending champion to return to Super Bowl. Returning champions are 6-3. Broncos QB John Elway has six career postseason fourth-quarter comeback wins.

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