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The Crookeds and the Straights
Playoff bound Broncos looking for more Mile High memories

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Mike Anderson leads the Broncos into another endzone. - DARRALD BENNETT

It came without ribbons! It came without tags!

It came withoug packages, boxes or bags. And for the Broncos, their 200th win at Mile High Stadium came without Brian Griese, Terrell Davis, and Ray Crockett.

It's a nice round number: 200. But the Broncos are eager to add at least one more straight, and maybe a couple crookeds before the season is over.

The Broncos victory, coupled with a Bills loss Monday night, assured Denver of making the playoffs this season. A half-dozen games ago, poised at 4-4, the post season seemed like an unlikely addendum to a holiday wish list, but after reeling off six straight victories, the Broncos have revived their season and their reputation. They still have a chance at a division title, and depending on their final season games Sunday in Kansas City and the following Saturday at home against San Francisco, they might even earn a final post-season home run before Mile High yields to the wrecking ball and the new (Corporate Sponsor Name Here) Stadium set to open in 2001.

Sunday's near-squeaker over the Seattle Seahawks -- the Broncos led by 24-3 in the third quarter, but had to scramble to hold on by a final score of 31-24 -- came out of a combination of intermittent good play and the kind of constant good fortune that makes talk of "destiny's team" hard to dispute.

"We did not play our best football game, offensively, defensively or on special teams," Coach Mike Shanahan told reporters after the game. "That's always a sign of a good football team, when you find a way to win when you don't play your best football game."

You hate to find fault with a team that's suddenly starting to resemble the dynasty that won two of the last three Superbowls, but it's a silver lining of sorts that the Broncos are indeed not playing their best football as they work themselves back into the postseason.

With all respect to the second-stringers of Gus Frerotte, Mike Anderson and Jimmy Spencer, all having stellar seasons as injury fill-ins, this Bronco team is far from firing on all cylinders. It is playing well enough for now, but to make it to the final game in Tampa on Jan. 28, the team will need to be at its best -- with Griese, Davis and Crockett back on the field.

All Anderson has done has been to rack up Rookie of the Year statistics while filling in for the injured Terrell Davis. In the past three weeks he has amassed 577 rushing yards (a new Broncos record for a three-game stretch), won his second AFC Offensive Player of the Week, broke a rookie single game rushing record with 251 yards against New Orleans and donated his game jersey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"It's been kind of chaos," Anderson said Sunday, at the end of a long week. "It kind of wore me out. Right now this is too unreal for me."

His teammates ribbed him about showing that wear and tear in a "sub-par" rushing game of 131 yards in 29 carries, including two touchdowns. He's young and naive enough to be uncertain when reporters query him, tongue in cheek, about letting the team down with his sixth 100-yard game of the year. "All in a day's work," he deadpans.

"That's pretty good," teammate Eddie McCaffrey said of Anderson's rushing yards. "A lot of guys would like to have a tough day like that."

Anderson knows he's getting better, learning the offense, "picking and choosing when I see the hole open up and trying to explode through it. Early in the season I was running too high, but now it seems like when I run I get my pants down and maybe get one or two more yards."

He put the lesson to good use in the third quarter, crawling over the bodies of his teammates and foes to stretch a one-yard run into a decisive touchdown. "Early in the season I probably would have been up high and got knocked backwards," Anderson said of the disputed play, held up as a verifiably dimpled touchdown when the referees reviewed the replay.

Though the Broncos heroes have come from the ranks of the unsung this season, it is clear where the leadership is coming from. "We've got so many veterans on this team that have been at this point before," Anderson said, explaining the team's ability to stay focused without looking too far ahead to the playoffs. "They know to keep going about our business. The young guys like myself, the rest of the rookies, we follow their footsteps."

Anderson was joined on the highlight reel by cornerback Jimmy Spencer, starting the last three weeks for injured team captain Ray Crockett. Although the defense faltered in the second half, letting the Seahawks slip through with 21 points in the last 16 minutes, they were largely responsible for the Bronco's dominance earlier in the game. The first two Broncos touchdowns resulted from interceptions, including one from Spencer, his second interception touchdown of the season.

"When we have that kind of production from our defense, we're going to play really well," said quarterback Gus Frerotte. "When they give us the ball inside the 20, we're going to score some points."

Nobody is more aware of the team's shortcomings and mistakes than Frerotte, the backup quarterback who has carried the team into the playoffs after Griese's spectacular season was interrupted by a separated shoulder against Oakland a month ago. "What we're doing pretty well, probably top of the league, is playing as a team," Frerotte emphasized. "There's not one side, offense, defense or special teams, that isn't playing hard."

Frerotte insists he hasn't felt the pressure this season. "I just felt that I could come in and participate in this offense. As long as I didn't make too many mistakes. The first game I came in against San Diego, there were four interceptions and five turnovers, but we were able to come back. I just have confidence in the offense, so I really don't put a lot of pressure on myself."

Even with four straight victories to save the season, Frerotte has no illusions about taking over the starting job. Griese is expected to be back on the field for the final regular season game, and Frerotte is ready to keep thinking like a team player. But his proven ability to shine in the clutch part of the season has made him a top candidate to be snatched up next season by a team looking for a solid starting quarterback. "I think I can be a starter in this league," he calmly affirms. "I feel very confident about that."

Shanahan is equally confident, determined to keep improving his team back into serious contention. "If we play the type of games we're capable of playing, we can beat anybody," said Shanahan. "But talk is very cheap. We just got to keep on working our rear ends off. If we do that, then we got a chance."

-- owen@csindy.com

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