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ELWAY'S DAY; QUARTERBACK LEADS DENVER TO 2ND TITLE IN ROW.

Byline: Bill Lyons Knight Ridder Newspapers

For almost his entire career, John Elway couldn't win a Super Bowl. Now he can't lose one.

The Denver Broncos, once the sorriest of the sorry in the Super Bowl, successfully defended their championship on Sunday night because of Elway and in spite of themselves.

Under a full moon, and a blue one at that, the Broncos allowed the plucky Atlanta Falcons to hang around and hang around, and in the process tried to hang themselves. But Elway kept driving them. He wouldn't allow them to lose. There is no statistic to measure such a quality, but there is nothing in sports quite as important.

Now, of course, the overriding question is whether John Elway, having already delayed his leave-taking by a year, will delay it one more year and take up the quest of the holy threepeat.

It says here that he will.

He will succumb to the temptation. The challenge is irresistible. No team, no quarterback, has ever won three Super Bowls in succession. Elway would cheerfully give up most of his organs to be the first, and only. To win a third, after having lost three, would elevate him even higher in the debate over who is the greatest QB ever, would nudge him ever closer to Saint Joe of Montana.

Genius is fueled by ego, and ego is fed by doing what no one else can do, or has done. Like Michael Jordan, who, it also says here, will come back next year, like all the extraordinary athletes, Elway is goaded by the you-can't-do-that school of motivation.

Asked point-blank whether he would be back, Elway grinned his buck-toothed, bunny-rabbit grin and shuffled his pigeon-toed feet and stalled and hemmed and hawed and said he would have to sit down and think about it, and all you had to do was look at his grin growing and growing and growing to read that there really was no decision to make, that he had already made it.

``This does put a kink in my thinking,'' he admitted of this victory.

He was grilled by Terry Bradshaw, a man who once won back-to-back Super Bowls twice, and who claims that he has Elway on tape telling him that if he won two in a row he'd try for three.

Elway couldn't, and didn't, deny making such a statement.

``You got to love the challenge,'' he said.

Of course you do.

And you have to accept it as well.

And, yes, you want him to pursue it. You want him back next season. Certainly the National Football League wants him back - commissioner Paul Tagliabue all but fell off the victory platform on Sunday night hoping to sway Elway.

Personally, I confess that I have done a 180 on this, by the way. Last year at this time, Elway finally having found a proper sunset, I wanted him to walk off into it. All he did instead was return and pass 50,000 career yards and 300 career touchdowns, produce a 19-2 record, win the Super Bowl and get named MVP.

Now that he's this far up the mountain, he might as well go on up to the summit.

You should always root for things to get done that have never been done. It's the most reliable method we have for keeping score of how we're doing.

And on the subject of keeping score, at the most important position in the sport is where Super Bowl XXXIII was decided. Elway, in his fifth Super Bowl, passed for more than 300 yards. Chris Chandler, in his first Super Bowl, very quickly got in the soup and passed for three interceptions.

The running backs, Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson, pretty much canceled each other out. The kickers, the usually reliable Morten Andersen and Jason Elam, combined to miss three makable field goals. The two defenses were vulnerable and not especially imposing, and the Denver defensive backs generously granted enormous cushions to Atlanta receivers.

But where the difference between the two teams was most obvious and most glaring was at quarterback. The closer Elway gets to sunset the better he seems to play.

He turned the game on one play. With Denver leading, 10-3, Andersen hooked an easy field goal, and on the very next snap Elway play-faked left, rolled right, and passed deep to Rod Smith. The ball flew 40 yards, then Smith ran with it 40 more, into the end zone. Had Andersen's kick been good, the Denver lead would have been cut to 10-6. Instead, it was 17-3.

John Elway doesn't run like he used to, but he makes better decisions. And even he thinks he has never thrown better than he has been lately.

What strikes you is that his velocity is still that of a young gun. The ball still hisses, and wary Denver receivers still speak respectfully of what they call the Elway Cross, the brand that the point of the ball sears into your flesh if you don't catch his fastball cleanly.

If his punch is the last thing that a heavyweight loses, then his zing is the last thing Elway will lose.

In his first three Super Bowls, Elway's teams didn't just lose, they got obliterated, liquefied, vaporized. Sunday night, he was the one laying on the lumber.

And, in rich irony, Elway won a Super Bowl with Dan Reeves on the sidelines, a feat Broncos fans swore would never be realized. They were half-right. Alas for Reeves, who is very much the gentleman and has won everyone with his valor this season, he was standing on the opposing sidelines, 4-for-4 now as Super Bowl loser. He deserves better.

The Falcons epitomize a team in which the whole is greater than the parts. All year they feasted on other teams' turnovers. They created 44 takeaways, leading the league. But Sunday night they forced only one while giving up the ball four times themselves.

Elway's numbers: 18-for-29, 336 yards, one touchdown, one rushing touchdown, and one interception, which was the fault of Shannon Sharpe, who allowed the ball to ``doink!'' off his helmet. Sharpe was injured early, and Ray Buchanan, the Atlanta cornerback who guaranteed a win and then guaranteed his guarantee, was no factor at all. So the two motor mouths were, mercifully, silent, and the game could proceed.

It proceeded as Denver games used to proceed, way back when, with everything hinging on Elway. He had handed over the team the year before. He gave the keys to Davis and said he'd ride shotgun.

``It's Terrell's team. My job is to make third downs,'' he said.

But not this game. This game would have to be won by passing. Last year, the Broncos won with running, which is to say with Davis. The Falcons bunched to stop him.

``Atlanta is a good run-defense team, and I thought they'd be keying on Terrell,'' Elway said.

They were. So Elway play-faked, and then threw about as well as he ever has.

``This is what I came back for,'' he said, luxuriating in the victory.

It is what will make him come back again next season, too.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

PHOTO (1 -- color) Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway celebrates a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.

Doug Mills/Associated Press

(2 -- color) John Elway and the Broncos had more firepower than the Falcons.

Amy Sancetta/Associated Press
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 1, 1999
Words:1240
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