Although they have still-wondrous quarterback John Elway and a tenacious defense, the Denver Broncos are within a victory of the Super Bowl for the first time since 1991 for one simple reason: Terrell Davis.
The 196th player taken in the 1995 draft, halfback Davis has given the Broncos the kind of feared running threat they've rarely had, even during their four Super Bowl seasons.
In their first 35 years, the Broncos had seven backs rush for 1,000 yards. Davis has done so in each of his three seasons. Denver runners gained 100 yards in 70 games during those first 35 years. Davis already has 20 games with more than 100.
Denver ranked 25th, 18th and 23rd in rushing in the three years before Davis' arrival and went 24-24. In his three seasons, the Broncos have ranked fifth, first and fourth. No wonder they're 35-16 during Davis' career, heading into Sunday's AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
"To beat Denver, you have to stop Davis," was how New England safety Willie Clay put it after Davis blistered the previously unbeaten Patriots for 171 yards in a 34-13 Denver victory Oct. 6.
"John's still the man," Davis said. "I'm the man behind the man. John needs a running game so he doesn't feel he has to win the game by himself. And having John back there helps me, because defenses always have to watch for the pass."
Davis takes a back seat only to Detroit superstar Barry Sanders among current NFL runners. Although injuries sidelined him for 1 1/2 games last month and kept him from trying to become just the fourth back to rush for 2,000 yards, Davis led the AFC with 1,750 rushing yards and 2,037 yards of total offense. His 15 touchdowns were second in the NFL. His 4.7-yard average ranked fifth.
That's pretty impressive for a guy whose college career began in 1990 at Long Beach State, which disbanded its program a year later.
Davis transferred to Georgia, where he sat behind Garrison Hearst (now with San Francisco) for a year. Davis rushed for 824 yards and a 4.6 average as a junior, but with the Bulldogs struggling, since-fired coach Ray Goff stopped giving him the ball midway through the season and started throwing. Davis carried just 97 times as a senior and was so disrespected by Goff that the coach made him watch one game from the stands rather than stand on the sideline while injured.
Although the other backs to gain 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons - Sanders, Dallas' Emmitt Smith, Philadelphia's Ricky Watters and New England's Curtis Martin - were all drafted no lower than the third round, Davis lingered until the sixth round in 1995. …