SAN DIEGO, JAN. 31 -- The Denver Broncos fell so fast, so hard, their coaches aren't sure yet what went wrong.

Joe Collier, Denver's defensive coordinator and the man who had better come up with some answers before long, didn't need a stat sheet or videotape to know his defensive unit had been demolished in a complete and embarrassing way. The score of tonight's Super Bowl XXII -- Washington 42, Denver 10 -- said enough.

"The bottom fell out," Collier said. "It was a nightmare. We couldn't cover anybody and we couldn't stop the run." For a defense, that about covers it.

Mark Jackson, one of Denver's Three Amigos receivers, recalled standing on the sideline during the Washington Redskins' 35-point second-quarter run and thinking, "Why don't you guys stop somebody?"

"But on the other hand," Jackson said, "the defense was probably looking at us stumble around, saying, 'Damn, why don't you guys score?' "

The Broncos had about the same success at both after the first quarter, which is to say, none.

The AFC champion Broncos had a million theories as to what happened. Some figured they got complacent after taking a 10-0 lead, which surely is possible since no team in Super Bowl history had come back from that great a deficit to win.

Quarterback John Elway, in hindsight, said he perhaps should have gone to a shorter passing game after the Redskins secondary got hip to the deep routes. When asked what the Redskins defense took away, Elway managed a smile and replied, "The passing game."

Coach Dan Reeves said maybe the Broncos just aren't good enough.

But as often is the case, Jackson is the man who made the most sense when it came to analyzing Denver's offensive woes. "We just didn't beat them bad in the first quarter, we beat their secondary the entire game," he said. "After the pass I caught for 32 yards, Darrell Green was holding his side and we all knew, 'These guys can't cover us.' Brian Davis certainly wasn't stopping anybody.

"But what happened was, we got behind in the blink of an eyelash, and they didn't even think about playing defense against the run. They just pass rushed. John didn't get the same protection, or he'd have run when he perhaps could have stayed in the pocket for an extra second."

"No offense can withstand that kind of pressure on the quarterback," Jackson said. "We never thought it would get to that, but Doug Williams throws one pass, then, there goes {Redskins running back Timmy} Smith for a long one, and the whole game is changed.

"You're standing there thinking, 'Holy smokes.' You could see it in everybody's face. Of course, we know how potent our offense is. Scoring 25 points in a half isn't the most difficult thing in the world for us to do. Everybody came into the locker room at halftime saying that, but you're already second-guessing yourself by that time."

But offense was only half the problem.

The Broncos knew deep in their hearts they couldn't stop the Redskins if Williams was halfway hot. They knew that without even considering the possibility Smith might get hot. That's why some of Denver's offensive players privately figured it would take 35 or so points to win the Super Bowl.

After all, in the AFC champiosnhip game, the Cleveland Browns would have scored five times in their final six posessions had Earnest Byner not fumbled near the Denver goal line in the game's final two minutes.

"You have to stop somebody," Reeves said. And his Broncos couldn't stop anybody.

That Smith was able to rush for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards was the biggest shock to Reeves and Collier. "We weren't surprised that he got the ball instead of George Rogers," Denver linebacker/end Karl Mecklenburg said. "Timmy Smith is their top running back and we knew that. And it didn't surprise us that he could break the line of scrimmage. But what did was that he could get, 20, 40, 50 yards after doing it."

Safety Dennis Smith said there were blown assignments on almost every pass the Redskins completed during the second quarter, and that Doug Williams' play fakes "fooled the people that counted the most, the people who should have been in on the plays." Smith, it should be noted, said he wasn't fooled.

But Smith did admit, "I never expected us to give up this many points. The game was over after the second quarter for all intent and purpose."

It was tough for the Broncos to come up with astute explanations for what happened to them in the second quarter, because they were still feeling the pain of a second straight season of hitting the rocks.

Owner Pat Bowlen called it, "an old-fashioned butt kicking . . . After the first plan, it went down hill from there . . . not many high points."

Bowlen had said before the AFC title game he would rather lose there than come all this way and lose in the Super Bowl, as the Broncos had done last season to the New York Giants.

"I still feel the same way," Bowlen said tonight. "If somebody had told me over breakfast this morning that we'd be down by 25 at halftime, I'd have laughed in your face. But by halftime, it was a lock for Washington. And the biggest disappointment is we didn't make it more of a contest.

"I want to put football out of my mind for three or four months and think about something else."