Denver Coach Mike Shanahan, carefully directing a third-string quarterback, Danny Kanell, guided the Broncos to the one-point lead they carried into the last half minute Monday night at Mile High Stadium.

Then New England Coach Bill Belichick's first-string quarterback, Tom Brady, one of the NFL's great bomb throwers, won it, 30-26, with a deep sideline shot to young wide receiver David Givens, last year's last-round draft choice from Notre Dame, who faked the Bronco coverage into the end zone before ducking away to catch the perfectly placed pass.

Earlier Brady bombs, measuring 48 and 66 yards, kept New England in a rousing game.

It was a rare prime-time matchup of top-level NFL strategist-philosophers, Shanahan and Belichick, both recent Super Bowl winners and both pass-offense enthusiasts. And Shanahan led at the half, 17-13, after patiently nursing the Broncos along on a 55-yard touchdown drive with Kanell's small repertoire of passes, including very frequent throwaways.

This suggested that Shanahan might have won if he'd had his first-string quarterback, Jake Plummer, who missed the game with a broken foot. Though Plummer will likely return to lead the Broncos' last-half-season playoff charge, the Monday nighter belonged to Belichick and his bomb-thrower.




Chiefs NFL Team of Half Year

THE PARITY SNARE, so-called, is now so all-embracing in pro football that, with few exceptions, 21st-century teams don't open the season with nine-game winning streaks. The Kansas City Chiefs (8-0) can be one of the exceptions.

After two months of pro ball, with two months left, the Chiefs are the NFL's Team of the Half Year. And if they win their Week 9 game against Cleveland Sunday, the Chiefs will be one step closer to the playoffs and a showdown with, possibly, the Indianapolis Colts (7-1).

They aren't scheduled against Indianapolis in their next eight. But if it's Chiefs vs. Colts in the AFC title game, one question is whether Chief quarterback Trent Green can hold his own with the flashier Colt quarterback, Peyton Manning.

Otherwise, these teams' running backs are about even (though Edgerrin James is faster than Kansas City's Priest Holmes) and the defenses are about even.

In the whole of that conference, only three other clubs have a championship chance: Tennessee (6-2), New England (7-2) and Denver (5-4). Food for thought: All three can outpass Kansas City: the Titans with Steve McNair, the Patriots with Tom Brady, and the Broncos if Plummer recovers fully from injury.




No Defense Can Rule Every NFL Minute

PRO FOOTBALL'S DEFENSIVE teams are almost all so powerful these days that most games are a struggle for even a quarterback like Peyton Manning, who is favored at Jacksonville Sunday, true, but who had to throw 37 times last Sunday, completing 23 for 266 yards, to get a 23-17 victory over new Miami quarterback Brian Griese, who was 18 for 29 for 231.

Manning moved the Colts repeatedly against Miami's sound defensive team, covering no fewer than 65 yards on each of six drives, but could only drive them all the way twice. That matched Griese's two-touchdown output for the Dolphins.

Actually, Griese's big plays were more impressive than Manning's. A well-placed Griese bomb set Miami up for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter, and in the second half his 23-yard touchdown pass to Chris Chambers was the longest of the game by anybody.

When good pro clubs get together — two dozen of them are playing this year in the 32-team NFL — that's often the way it goes:

• The league's many superior defenses are in charge most of the time, but not — in a 60-minute game — on every play.

• And when NFL offensive teams execute ideally, which happens once in a while, their many superior passers, earning or setting up a few touchdowns and field goals, can beat the great defenses.

For numerous reasons, the NFL is in balance now. But it's a balance not of mediocrity but of good teams and good players, the best football players there are.