THE CRUCIAL FOURTH WEEK

That little punch-up the other night in Barcelona meant nothing, of course. Still, there were a few surprises:

No one poisoned Al Davis's paella.
Denver's defensive backs failed to plant a bomb on the Raiders' team plane.
The Raiders didn't burn Denver deep on the second play of the game. They did it on the first play.

If you really want to know how the Denver Broncos' 35th season of professional football will turn out, you likely will have to look no further than week four of the season. To wit:

After the opener here against San Diego and a visit to the New York Jets (two Denver wins: Put 'em in the book), your Donks will host these same Los Angeles Raiders in week three, on September 18. Clearly, this will be a test not only of what is alleged to be a new defensive regime and a fresh attitude in Dove Valley but of will itself.

The last time the Broncos beat the Raiders in a game that meant something was September 6, 1992, when they eked out a 17-13 win at Mile High Stadium. Since then they have lost four straight to the silver and black (not counting Sunday's exercise in brutal make-believe), including those consecutive-week losses early last January that knocked Elway and Company out of the playoffs. Only rarely have a team's essential weaknesses been so cruelly exposed: The potent Bronco offense, you will recall, rang up touchdowns like a lucky geezer playing nickel slots, but every time quarterback Jeff Hostetler laid his fingers across the laces, he found the blur of Tim Brown or the aptly named James Jett or the perhaps-even-quicker Alexander Wright on an acre or so of otherwise uninhabited turf and zinged him the ball.

The Raiders' running game, as every team in the league had long since discovered, looked like Jackie Gleason following the blocks of Pee-Wee Herman. But that didn't matter. The aged and hugely bewildered Broncos secondary could not have stopped Hostetler and his swarm of fleas with a bank of howitzers. The Denver defenders looked like mannequins out there and they gave up 75 points in two consecutive losses to a team that...well, a team that should have spent playoff time with Madonna's underwear stretched over its collective head instead of moving on to the cold killing ground at Buffalo.

So, when September 18 rolls around, that Raiders game here will loom large, larger perhaps than any game in the Broncos' long and extraordinarily bitter rivalry with Davis's bunch. If the Donks don't win it, look for a tailspin in a season that many pundits see as Denver's Super Bowl return. Look for a case of White Whale Syndrome: Can't beat your obsession, can't beat anybody.

If the Broncos do beat L.A., all they must do the following Monday is visit Buffalo.

Say what you will about the losers of four consecutive Super Bowls (let's see here--Dallas, Washington, New York, San Francisco--the Donks have also lost four), but those Bills are tough at home, even in balmy September. Of course, the Broncos have taken Buffalo out before at Rich Stadium--and on Monday night. If the Donks get by the Raiders in week three, they have a terrific shot at beating the Bills in week four. No letdown.

If they manage that, a great season could be a done deal on the high plains. Consider:

After Buffalo, the Broncos get a week off, then face a schedule for the next nine weeks that wouldn't faze Florida State. How does this sound? Seattle, Kansas City, San Diego, Cleveland, L.A. Rams, Seattle, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Kansas City. Get out the pocket calculator for a second and you'll find that in 1993 those opponents had a combined record of 46 wins and 66 losses. Only one of the clubs, the Chiefs, had a winning mark (11-5), and they usually have about as much chance of beating the Donks at Mile High Stadium as the Germans in Stalingrad.

Throw in a loss at Arrowhead and a fluke somewhere else and what you've got is a 11-2 mark en route to three character-testing games to end the regular season--at the Raiders, at San Francisco, home to the unpredictable New Orleans Saints. Will one win out of the last three be enough? Should be.

Is there anyone outside of western New York who doesn't want to banish the Bills forever from the Super Bowl? Step right up, Mr. Elway, and accept the grateful kudos of all America.

Think we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves here? Okay, well, maybe a little. In that case, here are the Four Commandments:

1) Praise the Biff and Pass--the Ammunition.
Starting his twelfth season, good old Number 7 is still the Franchise, and he finally had the year everyone expected. While weary NFL defenders scratched their heads in 1993, Elway took to the Bill Walsh-style "West Coast offense" like a fellow to the manor born and led AFC quarterbacks in all six major statistical categories--passer rating, attempts, completions, completion percentage (63.2), touchdowns (25) and yardage (4,030). In fact, only the 49ers' Steve Young had better numbers, and he didn't get to the Super Bowl, either. If Elway gets hurt, all bets are off, of course. But that was one smart move by the front office: Veteran backup Hugh Millen can surely plug a gap here and there better than pure passer Tommy Maddox.

2) Ask and Ye Shall Receive.
Elway's 1993 is all the more amazing when you consider the mediocrity of his targets. Except for Shannon Sharpe. He was only the second-best receiver in his family with 81 catches, 995 yards and 9 TDs, but brother Sterling is among the best in the league, and talented 'tweener Shannon (small for a tight end, huge for a wide receiver) is now a star in his own right. Meanwhile, tight end Reggie Johnson was ordinary, hard-nosed Derek Russell was still developing and only confirmed Donkeyheads can name the rest of the corps. But look at 1994! To complement Sharpe, former Charger Anthony Miller is an authentic speed-burner and could become Elway's second "go-to" guy--if Miller can keep the ball in his hands. If he drops one, he sometimes drops 'em all. CU homeboy Mike Pritchard, late of the Atlanta Falcons, gives Elway another powerful weapon. The former running back is tough, fast and runs exceptionally well after making the catch. He could be the key acquisition. In other words, Number 7 finally has the first-rate receivers his sublime skills deserve. If everything clicks, you won't be able to add up the receptions and the points.

3) Thou Shalt Cover Thy Neighbor's Wideout.
In 1992, Denver's once-great defense slipped to number 22 in the league. Last season, the pass defense, riddled by injuries and beset by decrepitude, ranked number 27. Now that the Dennis Smith/ Karl Mecklenburg era is over, the Broncos have more new guys on "D" than O.J. Simpson, but whether they can play cohesively remains to be seen. Shane Dronett (7 sacks, 2 INTs last year) anchors a solid defensive line, and Simon Fletcher and Mike Croel lead a talented linebacking corps. But the only holdover in the secondary is hard-hitting safety Steve Atwater, who has not been the standout coaches and fans have hoped and must lead this year. Rondell Jones has first dibs on free safety . They'll both see some new faces at cornerback--former Eagle first-round pick Ben Smith and ex-Detroit Lion Ray Crockett. Ronnie Bradford still lacks speed, they say, but uses his head. In a nutshell, there can be no more fiascoes like last year's three losses to the pass-happy Raiders. If the defense rests, Biff won't be able to put the points up fast enough.

4) Do Run Run, Rod.
Former San Diego running back Rod Bernstine was finally heating up last season when a shoulder injury knocked him out. Again. Bernstine's a bruiser with great hands, but his upright, power-running style invites devastating hits. If he's lost to injury for a long stretch this year, neither the tough but limited journeyman Robert Delpino nor resident flea Glyn Milburn looks durable enough to take up the slack. And if you have to pass on every down, look out. Despite getting hurt, Bernstine carried 223 times in 1993 for 816 yards and 4 TDs while catching 44 passes. Just a modest improvement on those numbers could prove the missing link for your Donks.

Don't order the Super Bowl tickets just yet, though. Wait till after that Buffalo game.

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