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Original Issue

Kicking Into Gear With Jake Plummer back under center, Denver began its playoff push with an easy win over San Diego

Every Wednesday morning during the season Denver coach Mike
Shanahan speaks to his players about the task at hand. Before the
5-4 Broncos took the practice field last week, Shanahan kept his
words to a minimum. "In the seven years that Mike has been my
head coach," tight end Shannon Sharpe said on Sunday, "it was the
shortest address he's ever given the team."

Shanahan's subdued message: The last three teams that represented
the AFC in the Super Bowl--the Ravens, the Patriots and the
Raiders--started 5-4 in their championship seasons. "We know what
we have to do," Shanahan told his team. "Let's go out and do it."

Simple as it may have been, Shanahan's message got through. In
the first three quarters on Sunday against the Chargers, Denver
ran up a 388-21 edge in total yards en route to a 37-8 win.

It's highly unlikely that the Broncos will wrestle the AFC West
title away from the 9-1 Chiefs because Kansas City's remaining
schedule--other than a Dec. 7 date in Denver--is not particularly
tough. The top four playoff seeds in each conference go to the
division champs, and the runner-up in the AFC South (the Titans
and the Colts are 8-2) figures to get one of the two wild cards
in the AFC. At 6-4, the Broncos and the Dolphins are tied in the
race for the last spot.

While no Kansas City starter has missed a game this season
because of injury, eight Denver first-stringers have sat out a
total of 24 games, including quarterback Jake Plummer, who missed
four games after breaking a bone in his left foot while getting
off his couch one day last month. While he was out, the Broncos
lost three out of four.

But in his return on Sunday, Plummer was brilliant. Twice in the
first half Shanahan called bootlegs, and Plummer ran for 14 yards
total. His throws were accurate and unforced, and he completed 23
of 34 attempts for 253 yards and three touchdowns with one
interception. The last of his three TD passes, all of which went
to Sharpe, was an arcing spiral that the tight end snatched near
the back of the end zone.

Plummer, who was Shanahan's marquee free-agent acquisition last
winter, is vital to Denver's bid to reach the postseason for the
first time since 2000. A speed linebacker such as Ian Gold, who
was lost for the year when he tore his right ACL on Oct. 12, is
missed, but the drop-off from Gold to unproven Donnie Spragan is
nothing compared with the drop-off from Plummer to third-stringer
Danny Kanell. (Backup Steve Beuerlein was put on injured reserve
on Oct. 21 with a fractured pinkie on his passing hand.) "There's
still pain in the foot," says Plummer, "but it's a nonissue in my
head. [The bone] is strong enough that it shouldn't break again."

The Broncos have averaged 29.7 points in the six games Plummer
started, 17.3 in the games he missed. He has been surprisingly
accurate (62.4%) and, though he was known for throwing ill-timed
interceptions during his six years with the Cardinals, he has
played with more discipline in Denver. The interception he threw
against the Chargers was his first in 153 attempts.

Even if the Broncos make the postseason as a wild card, they will
be battling history. Since the league went to the 12-team playoff
format in 1990, no fifth-or sixth-seeded team has reached the
Super Bowl. (When Denver won the title game as a wild card after
the 1997 season, it was the fourth seed in a three-division
conference alignment.) "We proved in 1997 that the most important
thing is to get into the playoffs and then be relatively healthy
once you get there," said Shanahan, whose club beat Jacksonville
at home, Kansas City and Pittsburgh on the road and finally Green
Bay in the Super Bowl. "I firmly believe that what separates
teams in January is losing key players."

Simply put, the Broncos can't afford to lose their passer.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: ROBERT BECK Denver's defense swarmed, while Plummer (16) and Sharpe scored a hat trick.
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