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In big football games, there usually are two or three moments relatively early, or at least in the middle of the contest, when the winners sense victory will be theirs.

For example, Matt Millen, the burly 49er linebacker, had a feeling early.

"I knew it was over in the middle of the second quarter," admitted Millen.

The losers usually are the last to know. They can keep deluding themselves, often until the very end.

That wasn't the case Sunday afternoon in the Louisiana Superdome.

"Once we got in trouble," admitted Wade Phillips, the Broncos' new defensive coordinator, "we tended to panic."

Ah, yes.

"In fact," added Phillips, "I thought we came out a little flat."

A little flat? The Broncos, America's underdog; the Super Bowl's historic punching bag began the game a little flat? How could they?

We're talking degrees of flatness here: Flat, flatter, flattest and outright flattened. That describes the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV.

Is there any way Denver can be barred from future Super Bowls? In college football, if schools are apprehended in serious violations of rules, the NCAA suspends them and bars them from appearing in bowl games for two or three years.

The Broncos were apprehended impersonating NFL football players Sunday. Isn't 55-10 serious enough to eliminate them for the next two Super Bowls?

And how about 136-40, the aggregate score against them in three of the last four Supers? Shouldn't that bar them from playing games beyond December until after the turn of the century?

Terry Bradshaw, who is John Elway's harshest critic, said last week, "If Elway doesn't have a big game at quarterback against San Francisco, it could be 55-3."

Elway, Denver's beleaguered superstar, completed only 10 of 26 passes for 108 yards, with two damning interceptions. Bradshaw is entitled to guffaw, even if his prediction was off by seven points.

In the view of many of their backers, the Broncos' only real chance would have been if they were able to out-tough the 49ers. That is a misapprehension of many people who don't see the Niners very often.

"That's because we have Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, and Joe throws a lot of long touchdown passes, and guys like Rice make great catches, so people still think of us as a finesse team," said Bill Romanowski, the wild-man linebacker.

"But we knock guys on their tails all over the field, and that gets all of us excited. You see bodies lying all over.

"We can do things in a finesse way, but we're tough, too."

Romanowski gave a graphic example when he toppled Jim Juriga, a Denver offensive lineman who outweighs him by 45 pounds, like a dead tree as he continued his homicidal pursuit of Elway.

"Yeah, Juriga was surprised," said Romanowski. "I rang his bell, too."

Or consider the cannonball contributions of Steve Hendrickson of the reckless kick coverage. On one early return by Denver, Hendrickson soared over the blocking wedge, startling the return man into the arms of another 49er.

The effect it had on the Niners was even more emphatic. Over on the sideline, almost all of them were jumping up and down, exchanging high fives and butting helmets in celebration of Hendrickson's feat.

"That got us all excited," admitted Romanowski.

Probably no player personifies the 49er toughness more than Tom Rathman, the 232-pound fullback. He demonstrated to the Broncoes on the 49ers' second touchdown drive just how difficult a day this would turn out to be.

Rathman began the drive with a 14-yard run to the Denver 40, but the gain was nullified by a holding penalty. Never mind. That run showed the Broncos they could not ignore the Niners' running game, especially Rathman's role in it. Besides, Montana got it all back on the next play with a 20-yard pass to Rice.

Four plays later, Roger Craig was stopped shy of a first down on a third-down run to the Denver 35. A field goal was out of Mike Cofer's range, so the expectation was that punter Barry Helton would take the field.

Helton stayed on the sideline. The 49ers went for it on fourth and one.

It was the symbolic moment in the game.

The statements it made were: "We are the 49ers; we are the champions; you clowns are the Denver Broncos; you're supposed to cave in, just the way you did in three other Super Bowls."

Rathman careened off left tackle for 4 yards. Five plays later, Montana passed to Brent Jones and San Francisco had a 13-3 lead.

The Broncos are from ski country. They should have recognized the sound of an avalanche approaching when they heard it.

"We came into this game thinking we were going to make plays like that," explained Rathman. "That finesse label should have come off us about three years ago, but people still think of us that way. I think we showed them we have a toughness."

Silk and steel.

It's what allowed the 49ers to outscore their three post-season opponents -- Minnesota, Los Angeles and Denver -- by an even 100 points.

Anyone care to argue that San Francisco doesn't belong with the best football teams ever to play the game?

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