Broncos left battered by Pack attack

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The Independent Online
It was billed as a Super Bowl rehearsal and turned out to be just like the real thing. The Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos have been acclaimed as the best sides in their respective conferences this season, but as Sunday's confrontation confirmed, there remains a world of difference between reigning in the NFC and the AFC.

The last time an AFC side won the Super Bowl Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Cheers was still a twinkle in a TV executive's eye. The NFC has won the last 12 Super Bowls, usually by a wide margin, and that pattern continued at Lambeau Field when the Pack crushed a Denver team with only one previous defeat this season 41-6.

If the two meet again at the end of January the Broncos will no doubt make much of the absence of their inspirational quarterback John Elway. Having secured home field advantage throughout the play-offs a week ago, they chose to rest Elway's injured hamstring.

The presence of the journeyman Bill Musgrave in Elway's place might explain a defeat - although one of the Broncos' strengths this year was supposed to be the lack of reliance on Elway - but surely not a thrashing. Terrell Davis, the running back who has transformed the Broncos offense, was held to 54 yards, and it was a bad day for those, your correspondent among them, who detected a narrowing of the gap between the two conferences.

In fact the Broncos have beaten only one half-decent NFC team all season (and that a somewhat fortuitous success in Minnesota) and a look at Denver's record suggests that its league-leading status owes much to the inferior quality of the opposition.

While Elway rested, Brett Favre revelled. The Green Bay play-caller, in the prime of his career, threw for another four touchdowns, three to Antonio Freeman, to take his season's tally to 35.

The victory allowed the Pack to retain their NFC East title, and puts them a game ahead in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC throughout the play-offs. Two teams still capable of depriving them of that, San Francisco and Carolina, met for the latest round of what has quickly become one of the league's most intense divisional rivalries.

For the third time in four encounters the Panthers, new to the NFL last year, prevailed to take a marginal lead in the NFC West. A combination of turn-overs, crucial 49er penalties and an ability to go deep repeatedly against a normally reliable secondary was enough for the Panthers to win 30-24. "They can't be that good, that's not an expansion team I see out there," George Seifert, the 49ers head coach, said.

The Dallas Cowboys returned to the top of the NFC East with a 10-6 victory in Arizona, apparently untroubled by the absence of Leon Lett, their best defensive lineman. Lett was suspended for a year last week, after failing a drugs test. Lett missed four games last season for failing a similar misdemeanour, and the year-long ban is mandatory for a seond infringement. Michael Irvin, the Cowboys wide receiver who served his own drugs ban at the start of the season, made the crucial play, a 50-yard TD reception.

Jimmy Johnson, the Cowboys' former head coach now in charge of Miami, had guaranteed a victory at home to the New York Giants, which seemed a reasonable assumption. Afterwards Johnson was forced to make an even less contentious statement. "We showed today we are not a very good football team," he said following the 17-7 defeat which put his side out of the play-offs.