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ROMANOWSKI GIVES BRONCOS SLIGHT EDGE

Winning Super Bowl XXXIII would seem to be too much too soon for the Atlanta Falcons.

Considering that the Falcons, a team that had winning records in only eight of 33 seasons, have won 11 straight games, won their division championship and then shocked Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game, anything more would be severely challenging the law of averages.

Still, Atlanta has a chance to upset the Denver Broncos, the 7 1/2 -point favorite. The rival coaches, Dan Reeves of the Falcons and Mike Shanahan of the Broncos, agree that stopping each other's running game is probably the key to victory.

Count on it. The Atlanta defense will overload against Terrell Davis and the run with something like eight men lined up in a box from one Denver tackle to the other and, in effect, tell the Broncos, "Now beat us with your passer -- if you can."

The Denver defense will do something similar to Jamal Anderson and the Atlanta running game.

It may sound like heresy, but the Falcons, with Chris Chandler, seem better equipped to handle the challenge. Denver's John Elway, who may be playing his final football game, is considered one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but that judgment is on the body of his work and not what he's done in the last two years or in previous Super Bowls.

In the AFC championship game two weeks ago the Jets challenged Elway and he wasn't up to it. While New York took a surprising 10-0 lead in the third quarter, Elway was completing just four of 14 passes. It was Davis and the Bronco defense that turned around the game.

Besides, Elway never has had major passing success in his four previous Super Bowls. He's thrown two touchdown passes, coming in blowout losses to the Giants and Washington, and has seven interceptions.

When Minnesota stopped Anderson in the NFC title game, Chandler won the game for the Falcons.

But can win and will win are different. It says here that Denver will defeat Atlanta because it has what it requires to win this game, a player with a touch of madness who won't allow his teammates to lose -- linebacker Bill Romanowski.

Romanowski is no superstar. He won't go to the Hall of Fame. But he has that look. It's the same look that great linebackers such as Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Mike Singletary had and it tells his teammates, "We're going to win this game and if you don't do everything in your power to help win it you're going to be accountable to me."

Romanowski has been in three previous Super Bowls, two with San Francisco and one with Denver, and he hasn't lost yet.

He always answers the bell. Today is his 179th consecutive game in his 11-year NFL career. Not only is he always on the field, his opponents are constantly aware that he's there. In any listing of the NFL's dirtiest players, he'll finish among the top three.

A year ago, it was a season of carnage for him. He began with a major fine for breaking the jaw of quarterback Kerry Collins in a preseason game. In a Monday night game he spat in the face of San Francisco wide receiver J.J. Stokes. Against Pittsburgh he unnerved quarterback Kordell Stewart with constant loud reminders that Stewart didn't belong in the NFL.

"I did some things that I wasn't proud of," admitted Romanowski. "I promised my family it would never happen again. You have to be accountable for your actions. I'm big on accountability."

He means the spitting. The rough stuff is in his bones and so is the trash-talking.

"There are certain things you can say about a player, his ability or his family members that can get him off his game a little bit," Romanowski said.

This is not some preparation for the World Wrestling Federation. Romanowski's big-play record attests to his ability as a football player.

In his two playoff games this month, Romanowski intercepted Miami's Dan Marino, stripped the ball from the Jets' Keith Byars which led to a Denver fumble recovery, and then stopped a Jet drive in the third quarter by recovering a fumble on the Denver 28.

When you get past the dirty stuff, that's Romanowski's reputation: great instincts and quick to react to the ball. He leads the team with 17 tackles in the postseason, which is no surprise considering he's made 340 tackles since coming to the Broncos as a free agent three years ago.

"You do anything you can to win," he said. "It's a sense of urgency. It's all or nothing in this game."

I'm convinced. Denver 27, Atlanta 20.

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