Here come the Broncos. Revived by quarterback Jake Plummer's return from injury, Coach Mike Shanahan's Denver team can take another giant step toward the playoffs next Sunday against Cleveland at Denver, where Bronco tailback Clinton Portis scored last Sunday on runs of 11, 1, 59, 28 and 53 yards.

After Cleveland, it gets tougher for Denver in its last two at Indianapolis and at Green Bay, where winter weather could be another enemy.

On a fast field, Plummer and Portis are probably the premier pair of offensive strikers in football.

Individually, the edge might go to Tom Brady, Steve McNair, Michael Vick, Jamal Lewis or LaDainian Tomlinson.

But as a twin threat in clear weather, only Green Bay's Brett Favre & Ahman Green or Kansas City's Trent Green & Priest Holmes seem to be a match for Plummer & Portis. And Kansas City (11-2) fell to Denver (8-5) Sunday, 45-27, as Plummer completed 20 of 29 passes for 238 yards and Portis raced for 218 yards. Outplayed in the first half, 21-17, the Broncos came on aggressively in the second half, when Portis kept powering through the line and flying through open fields.




Rams Quit Longball and Also Shortball

THE ST. LOUIS RAMS can't expect a cakewalk in Seattle Sunday against their only rival for first in the NFC West, the wildly inconsistent Seahawks. For, sadly, the Rams have forgotten how to play pass offense.

Their spectacular turn-of-the-century Super Bowl teams attacked the whole field with an effective, lively assortment of literally all kinds of passes, some very long, some very short.

In Cleveland Monday night, by contrast, Ram Coach Mike Martz strangely called mostly 15- and 16-yard passes that the Browns defensed knowingly — so knowingly, in fact, that Martz's offense was restricted to four field goals.

And those 12 points weren't enough to win a 26-20 game that the Rams would have lost but for the 14 points Martz's defense earned with two interceptions by defensive back Aeneas Williams, who ran one touchdown all the way, 46 yards, and set up the second — a touchdown pass play.

A 16-yard pass play, of course.

This was delivered by quarterback Marc Bulger to veteran wide receiver Isaac Bruce, who, in the days when the Rams were throwing long passes, showed himself to be one of the great deep receivers of all time. Wide receiver Tory Holt can also go get it. And Bulger can throw it. He's a marksman at 30-plus yards.

There was none of that Monday. Nor did Martz call much short stuff, the quick hot ones that Holt and particularly tailback Marshall Faulk run so well after catches at the line of scrimmage, or just behind, or three yards beyond, or five. Instead, the Rams, who used to come out passing, came out running with Faulk, who on first-down carries totaled six yards on his first six runs and was never a touchdown factor. The Rams are 10-3 and playoff-bound, but they can play better than this.




The Patriots' Winter Wonderland

THE NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS, who are nearer the North Pole than any other NFL contender, are getting another Southern team they can roast next Sunday, Jacksonville, which should expect even less luck at Foxboro than Miami and Dallas had in the last two weeks. Both were blanked there, 12-0.

The Patriots' Foxboro home has become the new winter wonderland capital of the league, replacing Green Bay, whose team (7-6) is struggling this year and not likely to see any playoff games this winter, thank the lords of football.

At the moment, the Patriots (11-2), who will be heading for their 10th straight win in the Jacksonville game, are leading the home-field race to the Super Bowl. And with only the New York Jets and Buffalo left on the Patriot schedule, Coach Bill Belichick's team is looking forward to playing the whole playoff series in wintry New England before taking off for the Super Bowl.

The prospect of a January game at a site just this side of the North Pole is hardly the best of news for the AFC's other contenders. A January football game at Foxboro isn't a football test. It's a test of who can win in a New England freeze.

The NFL got itself in this fix by allowing Belichick to coach in New England and by allowing the Patriots to bring in Tom Brady as their quarterback. Together, Belichick and Brady are a handful everywhere they go into the more livable areas of a big country. At home, in January, with temperatures under freezing, and snow doubtless forecast, they are probably unbeatable.