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RUN TO GLORY
BRONCOS, FALCONS WERE IN A RUSH TO GET TO THE SUPER BOWL

Forget about the quarterbacks and wide receivers.

Forget about seeing the ball sail back and forth in the South Florida sunshine.

Super Bowl XXXIII should be played mostly at ground level. It should involve a lot of grinding and churning, a lot of grunting and pad popping.

It should be much more about muscle than finesse when the Denver Broncos face the Atlanta Falcons tonight in Pro Player Stadium.

That's because, for the first time in its history, the big game features a showdown between the first- and second-ranked running backs in the NFL -- Denver's Terrell Davis, who ran for 2,008 yards in 1998, and Atlanta's Jamal Anderson, who had 1,846.

"That's just a flat-out, physical battle," Falcons offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam said. "Which team is going to be more physical is probably the team that's going to win. Which team can stop the other team's running game is probably going to win.

"As an offensive line, every game weighs heavily on our shoulders, but it's exciting because all eyes are going to be on us. If we make this thing work, we'll be the heroes."

The Broncos, whom oddsmakers have made a 7 1/2 -point favorite, are back in the Super Bowl for the second year in a row. The Falcons, who scored a shocking 30-27 overtime victory against Minnesota in the NFC Championship Game, are making their first appearance in the big game.

Besides great running backs, this is a game that will have several other interesting themes:

Will it be the last game for Denver quarterback John Elway, who was supposed to have retired after leading the Broncos to a stunning victory over the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII?

Will Falcons coach Dan Reeves, the game's sentimental favorite after undergoing recent heart surgery, finally get his first Super Bowl win after losing it three times while at the Broncos' helm?

Will Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler, once a vagabond in the NFL, have a Super Bowl ring to show for all of those lean times in places like Tampa Bay?

Will it be a night filled with Bronco Mile High Salutes or Falcon Dirty Bird dances?

By all indications, this is a game that figures to be decided by the legs of Davis, the NFL's MVP, and Anderson.

"I don't think it's going to be as wide open a game as maybe (the Falcons') NFC Championship game was," Denver offensive guard David Diaz-Infante said. "When a team's behind, they're not going to abandon the run and open up the floodgates and put us guys in a bad spot. I think you're going to see teams that are consistently realizing that, hey, if you give them the opportunity, they're going to try to take control of the game."

A year ago, the Super Bowl came down to a battle of the No. 2 (Davis) and No. 4 (Green Bay's Dorsey Levens) running backs in the league. (That had been the most prominent such matchup in a Super Bowl since 1972, when No. 2, Washington's Larry Brown, faced No. 4, Miami's Larry Csonka.) Davis was the runaway winner, rushing for 157 yards and scoring three touchdowns on the way to being named the game's MVP.

Besides being 1-2, Davis and Anderson enter the game with the most yardage ever by Super Bowl running backs. None of the other runners on the top 10 list of best seasons made the Super Bowl or NFL title game in their best seasons.

Davis and Anderson have amazingly similar running styles. Neither is all that fast or elusive. However, both have enough speed to make defenders miss and are capable of going the distance on any play. Both stand 5-foot-11, although, at 234 pounds, Anderson is 24 pounds heavier than Davis.

Their backgrounds are also similar. Neither was a star in college. In fact, between them they ran for less than half as many yards as 1998 Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams of Texas. Anderson was a seventh-round draft pick in 1994; Davis was a sixth-round choice a year later.

"I see two great, powerful, explosive backs," said Atlanta reserve center Dave Widell, a former teammate of Davis' in Denver. "I see Terrell being a guy who gets into the secondary and runs away from tacklers; Jamal is a guy who gets into the secondary and runs over people.

"I just know that the two most complete backs in the league are going to be represented in the Super Bowl."

Mr. No. 1 and Mr. No. 2 have plenty of mutual respect for each other.

This is what Anderson has to say about Davis: "I like a lot of things about Terrell. He's tremendously tough. If I had to put a team together, in a running back I'm looking for toughness, vision and athletic ability. Can you cut? Can you catch? Can you block and can you do all those things equally well? I think Terrell can do all those things."

This is what Davis has to say about Anderson: "Jamal is a more patient running back. He reads things well and he stops on a dime. He makes those fast bursts. I don't stop. I'm speed and go. He has a lot of strength in his legs and upper body. The only thing we have in common is sometimes I try to be a power runner like Jamal."

The offensive lines for both teams have plenty in common -- they love blocking for a quality back because it makes their jobs that much easier.

"Jamal's the type of back that, if you don't have a great block, he can stillmake something happen," Salaam said. "You want to block for somebody like that. You don't want to block for the guy that, if you don't hold your block long enough, your guy makes the tackle. Jamal runs through a lot of things."

"We know that we've got somebody behind us that if we give him an opportunity," Broncos guard Mark Schlereth said, "he's going to make the most of it."

Another factor in this Battle of the Backs is the ability of both defenses to stop the run. The Falcons finished second in the NFL and the Broncos third in rushing yardage allowed. Only the San Diego Chargers ranked higher. In average gain allowed per rush, the Falcons were second (3.3) while the Broncos seventh (3.6).

But in two playoff games, no team has played the run better than Denver, which has allowed a grand total of 28 yards.

"He's a very powerful back," Broncos defensive end Neil Smith said of Anderson. "His style is kind of like that of Jerome Bettis. You just have to get more than one guy around him. You can't think you can bring this guy down with one guy."

"Obviously, Terrell is the ultimate challenge for our defense," said Falcons linebacker Jessie Tuggle. "To try to go out there and stop him would be almost impossible. What we want to do is contain him. And to do that we've got to go out there and play very aggressive. We've also got to be disciplined. The teams that have been successful against him have had gap control."

The tale of the tape

How Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson compare (NFL rank in parentheses)
Terrell Davis Jamal Andrerson
2008 (1) Rushing yards 1846 (2)
392 (2) Rushing attempts 410 (1)
5.1 (2) Yards per carry 4.5 (8)
21 (1) Rushing touchdowns 14 (T-2)
100 (1) Rushing first downs 90 (2)
511 (2) 4th qtr. rushing yards 616 (1)
50 (1) Big play (10 yards) 45 (2)

The numbers are close but Denver's Terrell Davis leads in the all important category - Super Bowl Championships - as he charges toward a second.

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