Denver successfully defended its Super Bowl championship and deserved to, but it might have been a far closer game had Atlanta not made 21 hours worth of bad decisions.
It began with coach Dan Reeves' decision not to switch the Falcons to a hideaway hotel the night before the Super Bowl, the custom for most of his coaching predecessors.
Reeves figured, "the players have their wives and families right in town, so they won't get into trouble." Wrong.
At 9 o'clock Saturday night, Eugene Robinson, signed as a free agent to supply veteran leadership for the Falcons, decided to cruise down a section of Miami's Biscayne Boulevard, known as "The HIV Highway," for a little sexual nightcap.
That didn't work well for celebrities such as Hugh Grant and Eddie Murphy, but Robinson must have thought, "I'm a veteran of 14 years in the NFL, I've already played in two Super Bowls, I'm a Colgate man so I'm bulletproof."
Just hours before, Robinson had won the Bart Starr Award, given by a Christian athletes' group for "high moral character." In retrospect, instead of the Bart Starr Award he might have been eligible for a Ken Starr indictment.
The "prostitute" Robinson propositioned was an undercover Miami policewoman. The Falcons had to bail him out of jail at 11 p.m. Saturday, just the thing to soothe a football team that had never been near a Super Bowl before.
By halftime, Robinson gambled on making an interception near his own goal line, missed and then watched the completion set up Denver's first touchdown. Later he missed two crucial tackles and was barbecued on an 80-yard touchdown pass.
If Robinson's foolish decision didn't rock his team enough, certainly the coaching decisions of Reeves must have. On the second play of the second quarter, with the Broncos' lead a mere 7-3 and Atlanta confronted by a fourth-and-one on the Denver 26, Reeves passed up the percentage field goal and ordered the Falcons to go for it.
That decision was off-the-wall enough, considering how early in the game it occurred. What compounded the error was the play Reeves chose, a pitch to the right side of the field. It was a play that took too long to develop. The Falcon blockers knocked linebacker Bill Romanowski out of the play, but a swarm of Broncos stretched out the run and threw Jamal Anderson for a 2-yard loss.
There are enough bad things that happen to a rookie Super Bowl team without its own coach taking unnecessary risks.
Despite all that, this game was just sitting there, waiting for Atlanta to get back into it with 3:49 left in the third quarter. The score was just 17-6, even though Reeves had abandoned the running game. Starting late in the second quarter, Atlanta attempted 13 passes on 14 consecutive plays.
One of the Broncos' weaknesses is that their safeties, Steve Atwater and Tyrone Braxton, are the same guys San Francisco's Joe Montana picked apart nine years ago in Super Bowl XXIV. The 49ers knew Atwater and Braxton were over-aggressive coming up to support against the run and were too slow to recover when play-action passes were used against them.
Atwater and Braxton aren't any faster nor more prudent against play action than they were nearly a decade ago, but the Falcons never tested them with that sort of passing tactic.
Eventually Reeves seemed to remember that his roster contained one of the best backs in the NFL, Anderson. Starting on the Atlanta 38, Jamal was sent to the left side on a pitch and he gained 13 yards. He broke two tackles and gained another 15 yards to the Denver 21. Suddenly the prospect of a contest was alive.
It died quickly. Reeves directed quarterback Chris Chandler to go back to throwing. On first down, defensive tackle Keith Traylor played off a block, threw up his right arm and deflected Chandler's pass. Defensive back Darrien Gordon got to the ricochet first and returned it 51 yards.
That finished Atlanta. The Broncos pushed over another touchdown and the competitive aspect of the evening was finished.
It seemed that Reeves, now 0-4 in Super Bowls, wanted this game too much. Just before the Broncos embarked for Miami, he reopened a can of worms when he commented at length about the hard feelings between him and Denver quarterback John Elway when he coached the Broncos. He also rehashed his reasons for firing Mike Shanahan, now the Broncos' head coach, when Shanahan was his offensive coordinator.
Back then the reason Reeves gave was "insubordination," namely a relationship too close with Elway that shut out Reeves. During Super Bowl week Reeves also went down that road.
A friend of Reeves also revealed that Dan confessed to him that "when Shanahan won the Super Bowl with the Broncos last year, it was one of the saddest days in Dan's life."
All of this did not escape Elway and Shanahan. Not only did Elway have the best Super Bowl of his career and win the Most Valuable Player award by unanimous vote, but he also attempted to throw a touchdown pass on fourth down with just 1:34 to play and the Broncos ahead by 34-19. The suspicion is that it was an attempt at an in-your-face statement.
"We didn't play well and I knew if we didn't play well, we wouldn't win," said Reeves. Considering that the coach underwent bypass heart surgery in December, it might be a good idea if he doesn't look at the films of this game for about six weeks.
By then he might be able to handle the major part he played in losing this game.