Standing Pat

Will the Mastermind soon trade orange for pink?

You don't have to be a psychoanalyst or a Pentagon code-breaker to understand the threat that Pat Bowlen issued last week. It was the ultimatum of an angry man, pure and simple. If the professional football team Bowlen owns and loves and realizes a handsome profit from doesn't win its next two games -- big-deal, high-hurdle games against the spookily resilient New York Jets and the tough, had-it-up-to-here, Bronco-hating Oakland Raiders -- then Bowlen will do his best Henry VIII imitation. Or morph into Jeffrey Dahmer. Dove Valley? Hell, by the time Bowlen gets done picking over the bones of his victims, they'll have to rename the place Vulture Gulch.

Quoth the bird of prey: "If we don't win these next two games, then I don't know what's going to happen."

Neither does anybody else. But let's speculate, shall we? If the Jets, who haven't forgotten their bitter AFC title-game loss here in January 1999, beat the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon at the Meadowlands, Bowlen will not campaign to name the Broncos' new playpen Mike Shanahan Stadium. But he might have his head coach take a Greyhound back from New Jersey. If Al Davis's 7-1 Raiders, who have lost six straight games to Denver and eleven of the last twelve, bang the Broncos around on Monday Night Football on November 13, Bowlen will not take his starting safeties on vacation with him in Tahiti. But he might have them over to the house to scrub the kitchen and paint the rec room. Meanwhile, beating the Jets and the Raiders on successive weeks will be difficult indeed: Boasting a combined record of 13-3, these are the best teams in the AFC.

Not counting mighty Cincinnati, of course.

If there's a more ignominious day in the history of the Denver franchise than October 21, 2000, no one's come forth to name it. Given hindsight and perspective, not even Denver's 55-10 thrashing by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1990 Super Bowl seems as awful as losing to the winless, hapless and theretofore motionless Cincinnati Bengals, 31-21. That home playoff loss in January 1996 to two-touchdown underdog Jacksonville was a shocker, all right. But it doesn't compare with yielding 407 yards rushing -- the most in fifty years of NFL play -- to the horrid Bengals, who were shut out in three of their first six games this season. Or giving up 278 yards on 22 carries to running back Corey Dillon, who surpassed the NFL record (275 yards) held by the great Walter Payton. Barbra Streisand, Bo Derek and Shanahan's old buddy Bubby Brister might as well have been playing "D" for the Donkeys, so lackadaisical was their tackling. Meanwhile, Cincinnati's hobbled quarterbacks completed just two passes -- for a grand total of fourteen yards. As for Dillon, he's ordinarily no world-beater: In a September game against Baltimore, he managed only nine yards on twelve carries.

One week after beating Denver, Cincinnati managed a second win, just 12-3, against in-state rival Cleveland, which is now an expansion team.Next up for the Bengals? Let's see here...looks like Bowling Green.

Unfortunately, the 4-4 Broncos have had an extra week to contemplate the error of their ways in Ohio. The NFL schedule-makers gave Denver a bye this past Sunday, and you can bet the boys weren't working with their short irons or fishing in Dillon Reservoir. No, coach Shanahan, the Mastermind, imposed upon them hard practices, including lots of hitting drills, bowls of thin gruel and lashes with the cat-o'-nine-tails. "If players get hurt in practice," he vowed, "that's just the way it is."

"I don't know what's going to happen," Pat Bowlen says. Oh, yeah? What's probably going to happen if the Broncos hit the toilet again this year (last one in, kindly flush) is that your predominantly orange gladiators, along with their coaches, trainers, waterboys, immediate relatives and prom dates from high school, will be gushing predominantly red. Think the Palestinians are pissed off at Israel? Wait'll Pat starts waling on the Broncos' defensive linemen. Think Mets fans hate Roger Clemens? Get a load of Herr Bowlen when he catches defensive coordinator Greg Robinson on his bloody talons.

"It'd be a longshot to bet we're going to win eight games in a row," Bowlen said with a straight face. "Odds tell me we're going to lose, but hopefully no more than one game."

One game? Is he kidding? That's like Lyndon Johnson saying the Marines might lose one guy at Khe Sanh. The Jets, fresh from a thrilling comeback win over Miami two weeks ago, in which they scored thirty points in the fourth quarter to tie, and a three-point loss Sunday at Buffalo, can fairly taste Super Bowl. Armed with momentum and talent, they're primed for another win. As for Al Davis and Company, who would just as soon blow up the Broncos' team hotel as face them on the field, Monday Night Football could be the perfect chance not just to break a maddening streak of losses but to humiliate their old enemies on national TV while Dennis Miller trots out stupid puns based on Greek mythology. Screw Super Bowl. The Raiders might be content this season just to grind Denver into horseburgers. Not only that, after playing the two games Bowlen says they have to win, the Broncos must visit Seattle, New Orleans and Kansas City -- none of which now appear to be the clay pigeons everybody thought they were when Denver got a look at its supposedly weakest-ever schedule last summer.

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