Seattle-Denver in key matchup as NFL season enters home stretch

There are currently three National Football League teams, San Francisco, Miami, and Denver, with 11-1 credentials - impressive enough that no Super Bowl worth its weight in Orson Welleses should be without them.

Those records at the three-quarter mark of the season put the 49ers and Dolphins well ahead and apparently en route to runaway victories in their respective NFC West and AFC East division races. But the Broncos, despite their outstanding play, haven't been able to pull away from the surprising Seattle Seahawks (10-2).

The two teams collide Sunday in Denver's Mile High Stadium with sole possession of first place in the AFC West at stake. And as formidable as Denver has been all year, no guarantees come with this one. Cracking a bank vault with a plastic hammer may prove easier than beating the Seahawks the way they have played lately.

While Seattle's personnel might not look that great on paper, the Seahawks have become 20th century masters at painting opponents into a corner, then turning mistakes into touchdowns. Seattle, which leads the NFL in fumble recoveries and pass interceptions, gobbled up three more loose footballs and picked off two more passes Sunday in a 26-6 victory over Cincinnati.

Certainly nobody wants to take anything away from the Broncos, whose defense is outstanding and whose young quarterback, instant millionaire John Elway, seems to have matured between plane changes.

When Elway has been able to stay in the pocket and concentrate on more than one receiver, nobody has consistently been able to keep Denver from moving the ball. But when John has been pressured by the defense, things haven't gone nearly as well.

One key to look for early in this game is how the defenses perform, especially in third down and short yardage situations. If either should break down right away, it could mean trouble. Otherwise, not many points should separate the teams going into the final period.

One thing Elway has not been afraid to do all season is challenge the cornerbacks. In two victories over the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders, for instance, John didn't hesitate to throw into territory that most clubs regard as shark-infested waters.

With four weeks left in the regular season, Washington, Dallas, and the New York Giants remain tied for the NFC East lead at 7-5 each. For the rebuilding Giants, this season already ranks as a huge plus. But for the Redskins, who have been in the last two Super Bowls, and the Cowboys, who are never far off the top , it's as though both have suddenly acquired a new set of holes in the roof, leaks in the plumbing, and rattles in the furnace.

Chicago still leads the weak NFC Central, although Green Bay has started to make noises with four wins in a row. Next year somebody should remind the Packers that the season starts the first week in September.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, who are harder to evaluate than a used car whose chrome sparkles but whose rubber-coated gas pedal is beginning to show metal, are all even at .500, but still lead Cincinnati by two games in the NFL's Pathetic Division (a.k.a. the AFC Central).

Meanwhile New England, with an 8-4 record, is being fitted for a wild-card playoff berth by new coach Raymond Berry. Some think Berry's relaxed approach may have become more important to the Patriots' well-being than the cosmetic changes he has made on defense.

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