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SUPER BOWL MATCHUP SHOULD PIQUE INTEREST FOR NEXT SEVEN DAYS

The NFL couldn't have asked for a much more intriguing matchup than it has for Super Bowl XXXIII a week from today in Miami's Pro Player Stadium.

The Atlanta Falcons are one of the better comeback stories in sports, going from a 1-7 start in 1997 to a 14-2 season in 1998 and their first Super Bowl appearance. Moreover, they made this incredibly rapid climb with only two first-round draft picks and 20 other starters who are mostly of castoffs from other teams.

The Denver Broncos, who scored a stunning upset over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII, are back to defend their crown. They, too, were 14-2 in '98; since the middle of the 1997 season, they are 26-4.

For the second year in a row, the Broncos have the game's sentimental favorite: quarterback John Elway, who is expected to retire after the final gun. And, at 38, he is supposed to really call it quits this time.

There are other interesting angles to the game -- tickets for which carry a face value of $325 or $400 but are fetching anywhere from $1,700 to $5,000 from brokers and scalpers -- including:

* The fact Falcons coach Dan Reeves, the NFL's Coach of the Year, is back on the sidelines after undergoing heart surgery in December. Get ready to hear from assorted medical experts weighing in on the risks Reeves faces coaching in the mother of all sporting spectacles.

* Reeves' admitting last Wednesday that his emotional wounds haven't healed completely more than six years after he was fired as coach of the Broncos, whom he guided to three Super Bowl appearances, all losses.

* Reeves' falling out with Elway (who described playing for Reeves as "hell") and Denver coach Mike Shanahan, whom he fired as quarterback coach for alleged insubordination. Shanahan was extremely close to Elway.

* The rushing duel between Denver's Terrell Davis, the NFL's Most Valuable Player and last year's Super Bowl MVP, and Atlanta's Jamal Anderson. It marks the first time that the first- and second-ranked rushers in the league have squared off in the NFL's title game since Steve Van Buren of the Philadelphia Eagles and Charley Trippi of the Chicago Cardinals were 1-2 and met in the 1948 game.

* Chris Chandler, Atlanta's well-traveled quarterback who is on his sixth team in 11 NFL seasons and has the dubious distinction of having been dumped by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during a 3-13 season.

* The battle of two of the league's better-known touchdown celebrations: The Broncos' Mile High Salute vs. the Falcons' Dirty Bird.

Super Bowl Week could prove to be even more interesting than usual for Bills fans -- that is, since their team stopped playing in the game on an annual basis.

That's because former Bills coach Marv Levy and one of team's greatest offensive linemen, Billy Shaw, have a strong chance of being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame during voting Saturday at the Super Bowl XXXIII headquarters hotel in Miami.

The only ex-Bill in the Hall is O.J. Simpson, who was inducted in 1985.

Shaw, who played guard for the Bills from 1961 to 1969, is the lone seniors candidate. Levy, who in 11 1/2 seasons became the winningest coach in Bills history, is one of 14 modern-era finalists. He is the only coach to reach four consecutive Super Bowls. He retired after the 1997 season with a 143-112 record.

As for the game, the Falcons have no qualms about being installed by oddsmakers as a seven-point underdog. In fact, Reeves said it made perfect sense to him.

His bigger concern is that his team doesn't embarrass itself as his three Bronco clubs did in the big game, losing by a combined 146-40 and by a minimum of 19 points.

"My concern is that we play as well as we're capable of playing," Reeves said. "If we play as well as we're capable of, then you've got a chance. If we don't, then you can get embarrassed.

"When I look back on the Super Bowls I've coached, I don't think I've had a football team that's put all the phases of the game together and played well. We've done it in championship games, but for some reason we haven't been able to do it in the Super Bowl."

The Falcons have some players with Super Bowl experience, such as former Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett. For the most part, though, their roster is green when it comes to those who have experienced the intense glare of the Super spotlight.

That's one place where the Broncos have a significant edge.

"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.

Not that it has been all that much of a benefit to Elway. In three Super Bowl losses, he completed only 45.5 percent of his passes, threw for only two touchdowns, was intercepted six times, and sacked 12 times. Even in last year's victory, Elway's numbers were hardly spectacular: 12 for 22 for 123 yards with no TDs or interceptions.

Although Davis, Elway and the rest of the Broncos' offense dominate the headlines, it is Denver's defense that has been the biggest factor in the team's postseason success. And stopping the run is what the unit does best.

In two playoff games, the Broncos have allowed 14 rushing yards in each. In its past four games, dating to the Dec. 21 loss in Miami, Denver's run defense has permitted a mere 88 yards on 67 attempts, an average of 1.31 yards per carry.

"Great teams can play rushing defense extremely well, and that's what we've been able to do," Shanahan said. "It's really hard to win unless your defense dominates in the postseason. Over the last couple of years, we've been able to play extremely well on defense, and hopefully we can do that a week from (today)."

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