No Elway, but late heroics are in vogue


With just under six minutes to play Sunday, Denver Broncos fans began bailing out of Mile High Stadium, convinced there was no coming back from an eight-point deficit against the New York Jets.

They were right. The Broncos would lose their fourth in a row, 21-13, with a late collapse. And the interesting thing is that while the home of the comeback king has gone quiet, the rest of the NFL is alive with fourth-quarter heroics.

Led by Brett Favre and Drew Bledsoe, there have already been 20 fourth-quarter comebacks in the season's first four weeks. That's nine more than the NFL had at this juncture a year ago, an increase of 82 percent.

Of the 20 leads that were overturned, eight games were decided in the final minute and one other went into overtime. Seven times, a double-digit lead was squandered.

The biggest was a 21-point spread in Week 1, when the Dallas Cowboys stormed back to beat the Washington Redskins in overtime, 41-35.

In weeks 1 and 3, Favre led the Green Bay Packers to victory with touchdown passes in the final 11 and 12 seconds of the game. Bledsoe, meanwhile, directed two final-minute field-goal drives in the first two games of the season for the New England Patriots.

John Elway, the Broncos' quarterback who once seemed to have a monopoly on fourth-quarter comebacks, retired to do beer commercials this season and the rest of the league is copying his act.

Interestingly, there have been five fourth-quarter comebacks each week of the season. The Week 4 highlights featured the Chicago Bears' Shane Matthews throwing a pair of touchdown passes in the final two minutes to wipe out a 10-point deficit against the New Orleans Saints, and the Redskins toppling the Carolina Panthers, 38-36, on Brett Conway's field goal with six seconds left.

One of the biggest reasons for the sudden proliferation of comebacks is that parity has gripped the NFL like a vise this year, literally turning the league upside down.

Perhaps nowhere do they appreciate that more than in Denver.

Assembly line production

The San Francisco 49ers are remarkable for their resourcefulness in surviving a change of quarterbacks. When former CFL quarterback Jeff Garcia produced a 24-22 victory over the Tennessee Titans in Week 4, he became the latest in a long line of backups who came through for the team.

Since 1996, four different backups have replaced an injured Steve Young and delivered a win. They include Garcia, Ty Detmer in 1998, Jim Druckenmiller in 1997 and Elvis Grbac in 1996. Grbac went 3-1 as Young's sub that season, losing only to the Packers in overtime, 23-20.

Altogether, the 49ers are a remarkable 27-10-1 since 1981 playing with a backup quarterback. That's not one coach or one quarterback. That's the sign of a great organization.

Keeping it close

There was plenty of second-guessing after some questionable strategy by coach George Seifert seemingly cost Carolina a victory at Washington. Seifert has taken to alternating running backs Tshimanga Biakabutuka and Fred Lane by quarters. Biakabutuka gets the first and third quarters, Lane the second and fourth.

But in the past two weeks, Biakabutuka, the eighth pick in the 1996 draft, has broken touchdown runs of 62, 67, 60 and 45 yards. Against the soft run defenses of the Cincinnati Bengals and Redskins, he gained 13.7 yards a carry, rushing for 274 yards and five touchdowns. Lane, an undrafted free agent in 1997, rushed nine times for 14 yards in those games.

Biakabutuka's three first-quarter touchdowns gave Carolina a 21-0 lead over the Redskins. When he came back late in the second quarter, the lead was down to 24-21. If a guy won't be tackled, how do you take him out?

"If I make a mistake in a ballgame, I'll be the first one to tell you," Seifert said. "I didn't second-guess myself for putting Freddie Lane in the game."

Counting down

The end could be near for Cincinnati coach Bruce Coslet, who has lost 14 of his past 15 games and been outscored 99-20 in the past three by San Diego, Carolina and St. Louis.

In the wake of Sunday's 38-10 loss to the Rams, team owner Mike Brown said it was time for first-round draft pick Akili Smith to take over at quarterback for veteran Jeff Blake. Coslet agreed yesterday, naming Smith starter for Sunday's game.

"It has become the worst nightmare you could think of," Brown said. "It has become far worse than I ever could have imagined."

Of Coslet's job security, Brown had only this to say: "I'm not saying anything about it."

By the numbers

St. Louis' Az-Zahir Hakim celebrated the first four-touchdown performance for the Rams since Harold Jackson in 1973. Bucs quarterback Trent Dilfer threw for 301 yards in a loss to Minnesota, his biggest total since he threw for 327 against San Diego in 1996. The Bucs had allowed 143 total yards per game going into Week 4; the Vikings shredded them for 192 in the first quarter. If the New York Giants replace quarterback Kent Graham with Kerry Collins this week, he would become the fourth starter in 37 regular-season games under coach Jim Fassel. The 1992 Chargers are the only team to start the season 0-4 and still make the playoffs, which is the challenge the Broncos face.

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