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Last Stop: New Orleans?

In the Acme Oyster House on Iberville Street, three big fellows wearing muddy aprons and yellow rubber gloves were shucking as fast as they could. The Sunday afternoon hangover crowd was packed cheek-to-jowl inside the Acme, harbored now from a steady, gulf-blown rain, but not from the whips and jangles inside their heads. At times like this--seven nightclubs on the resume, fifteen bourbons, four hours' sleep--it takes most people a dozen oysters and a couple of cold Dixie beers, maybe throw in a bowl of gumbo, to get their minds back on the planet. So the three guys with mud splashed on their chests were shucking and shucking with their wicked pointed knives, sliding the iced platters of oysters onto the white marble countertop, then shucking some more. The New Orleans survival kit.

On the television, John Elway and Shannon Sharpe were laughing off a 17-0 deficit and putting together their astonishing comeback win over the San Diego Chargers. Slant pattern. Nine yards. Over the middle. Eleven more. Curl. Ten yards. Post pattern, safety fooled, receiver all alone. Touchdown. The oyster eaters and beer drinkers hadn't come all the way back from the dead yet, but they were watching.

"We remember your team down here," a ham-faced man at the bar said. "Two Super Bowls. Came up empty."

Well, yes. On January 15, 1978, Craig Morton's Broncos offense and the Orange Crush "D" of Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson slipped into the Louisiana Superdome and got blasted 27-10 by the Dallas Cowboys. A dozen years later John Elway and company returned to New Orleans, where Joe Montana and the 49ers laid that 55-10 thing on them, the worst trimming in Super Bowl history. In between, of course, Denver managed to lose the big one in Pasadena and San Diego, but there's something special about New Orleans, isn't there? The city where people drink too much and think too little is the site of the Broncos' first and last major humiliations.

As luck would have it, it's also the place where all the bad memories could be washed away--where Broncos fans could finally get over their long hangover. On January 26, 1997, the Big Easy will host the Super Bowl for the eighth time in 31 years, and if there's some good reason why the surprising 5-1 Broncos can't be right there for the kickoff, no one's come up with it yet. In fact, as they pass their bye week and get ready for the Baltimore Ravens, Mike Shanahan's club is just one fourth-down plunge or a chip shot (take your choice) short of the NFL's sole unbeaten record: Only a curious failure of nerve in Kansas City on September 22--fourth and one from the thirteen, resulting in a missed field goal--separates Shanahan from perfection.

With a running game that works beautifully but for the occasional Terrell Davis headache, a defense that can stop anyone and a schedule without a lot of monsters on it, the Broncos might be primed for their best season in six years. That Monday night Steelers win over the Chiefs didn't hurt anything, and the locals don't even meet AFC powers like Pittsburgh, Buffalo and Indianapolis this year--until the playoffs. Could be quite a year.

As long as Number Seven doesn't go down. As the league's unluckiest teams can tell you, there's nothing like a healthy starting quarterback to inspire confidence in the troops, and 1996 has again taken a heavy toll. Both of John Elway's famous 1983 classmates, Miami's Dan Marino and Buffalo's Jim Kelly, were hurt badly early in the year. In San Francisco, masterful Steve Young has given way to Elvis Grbac for a couple of games, and after a nice start, Philadelphia lost Rodney Peete for the duration to a gruesome leg injury. Damaged only above the neck, the always-troublesome Jeff George was suspended by winless Atlanta after throwing a mid-game tantrum at Falcons coach June Jones. And while the 0-7 New York Jets might be better off playing offense with ten men on the field, the shoulder separation suffered two weeks ago by zillion-dollar purchase Neil O'Donnell, late of the Super Bowl-losing Steelers, only adds to the Jets' woes.

Retired Randall Cunningham has been shopping himself all over the league--that's what things have come to in the pro quarterback pool. If Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw aren't back in uniform inside of two weeks, we'll be surprised.

Aside from Warren Moon and Brett Favre, the last man standing, despite rumors about his shoulder, is Elway. And those who believe in it would do well to say a couple of prayers right now for the man who threw four TD passes and rolled up more than 300 passing yards in the comeback against San Diego. For a tough 36-year-old veteran who doesn't run quite like he used to, life expectancy in the NFL is something akin to that of a German corporal at Stalingrad. But if the football gods are kind (please, guys), Elway will continue to have one of his best seasons ever, brilliant in his career autumn, unscathed in the practice of his art.

But we were drinking Dixies and eating oysters down on Iberville Street, weren't we?

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