In 1985, Mike Ditka and the Chicago Bears looked invincible.
They ran roughshod through the start of the National Football League season and seemed destined to become the second team in modern history to go through a campaign with a perfect record.
But then Walter Payton, Jim McMahon and William "the refrigerator" Perry made a record, the Super Bowl Shuffle, and shuffled down to Miami to face the Dolphins on a warm Monday night in the Orange Bowl. Ironically, the Dolphins were the last and only team to go through a season unbeaten having turned the trick 13 years earlier.
With several members of the 1972 Miami club in attendance, Dan Marino & Co. beat the Bears by a couple of touchdowns, thus preventing the Bears from duplicating Marino's ancestral cousins perfect season.
Flash ahead to 1998. The Denver Broncos have matched the Bears and have gone 13-0 only the third team in NFL history to start off 13-0 with three games to play. After a stop next week against the lowly New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos will have to go down to Miami to face the Dolphins who again figure to be a major roadblock toward another NFL team's quest to duplicate a perfect regular season.
There are similarities, for sure. The Bears had a great ground attack led by Payton, just like Denver has won with Terrell Davis. Chicago had speedy receivers, just like the Broncos, and had a doomsday defense that suffocated opponents, just like the Broncos have enjoyed this season. McMahon could thread through opponents' defenses when healthy, just like John Elway although the Denver QB is the far superior quarterback in terms of stats and value to his club.
The comparisons end there. The Miami club of 1985 that stopped the Bears was a better team than the 1998 version that will try to bottle up the Broncos. Marino was nearing his prime in 1985; today he is an aging veteran who has given up leadership of the offense to Jimmy Johnson's ground attack. In 1985, the Dolphins were probably the second best team in the NFL and figured to challenge the Bears for the Super Bowl,only to be upset by New England in the AFC title game (the Pats bowed meekly to the Bears 46-10 in Super Bowl XX which was the biggest rout in the history of the game to that time).
Denver is a very good team, but not yet a great team. Before they can lay claim to that title, they will have to go ahead and beat Miami, who need to keep winning to ensure a playoff bid, and go through the regular season unbeaten. But even that won't do it. The Broncos will have to go through the playoffs unscathed and notch a second successive Super Bowl title, something only two other AFC teams have ever done (Miami in its perfect season in 1972 and again in 1973 and the Steelers twice in the 70s).
Denver's quest to accomplish all of this may be more difficult than its predecessors. While there is no question the Broncos are the best team in the NFL this season, they have had a history of posting impressive results in the regular season and early rounds of the playoffs, only to falter come championship team. Just two years ago, Denver had the best record in the AFC but was surprised in the second round by the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars, who eventually fell to New England in the AFC title game. And yes, there are those failures in the Super Bowl that last year's win helped many fans to, for now, put aside.
In addition to some shaky history, there is another factor working against Denver this year. The AFC is a far superior conference to the NFC this season. In previous years when Denver dominated, the AFC was the far weaker conference something that was proven out come Super Bowl time. But the NFC is shaky this year; San Francisco and Green Bay, dominant over the past couple of years, have big question marks. Surprising Atlanta and Minnesota aren't playoff tested. There is a possibility one of the wild card teams in the NFC will enter the playoffs with an 8-8 record. There is even the chance, albeit slim, a 7-9 team could make it in as the NFC wild card qualifier, due in part to the AFC's dominance over the NFC in interleague play in 1998.
By comparison, the AFC is loaded with stronger teams that might upset Denver. Jacksonville has been dominating at times this year, New England, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and the Jets are all capable of getting hot come play off time. And even Miami, while not as strong as their 1972 or 1985 descendants, is capable of putting together a strong playoff run that could begin with an upset over Denver on onday night in two weeks.
If Denver is to reach the history books, they will have earned it. And most likely any path to real glory will have to go through Miami.