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Elway Is Sound Enough, Leads Denver : AFC: Quarterback is cleared to play despite injured shoulder and guides Broncos over Patriots, 20-3.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On a big day for Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway, the New England Patriots didn’t play well enough to score a touchdown Sunday in sunny, freezing weather at Mile High Stadium.

With the temperature in the low 20s and the wind-chill factor in the teens, Elway led the Broncos to two touchdowns, two field goals and a 20-3 decision over a team that has come far but still has far to go under its promising new coach, Dick MacPherson.

“I don’t think we did anything well,” MacPherson said afterward. “I told the guys, we can’t play like this and win.”

Elway, who played with an injured shoulder after the results from a a magnetic resonance imaging test cleared him for action, threw for 215 yards and led four long drives against the Patriots (4-9) to put the Broncos (9-4) a step closer to their fifth AFC West title in Coach Dan Reeves’ 11 NFL seasons.

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"(Elway) should have one of those MRI’s every Friday,” MacPherson said.

The Broncos’ offensive and defensive performance demonstrated again that as an intensively coached team, Reeves’ group ranks in the NFL’s top four or five. This was the 99th regular-season victory for Reeves, who is on course for his sixth 10-victory season after four firsts and four seconds in his first Denver decade.

“Defensively, you can’t play much better than we did today,” he said. "(The defense) was in total control. The offense bounced back from a poor performance last week.”

It was a typical Bronco game. If you’ve seen Elway throw one 50-yard pass, you’ve seen them all.

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But it wasn’t so typical of the Patriots, who have upset both Buffalo and Houston this year and have played well enough to win three or four other games--including the first Denver game at New England last month.

They had a three-part problem here.

First, Reeves, well aware of the Patriots’ potential, wasn’t letting them close to another upset.

Said Denver nose tackle Greg Kragen: “They like to run the ball, that’s their bread and butter, and we took that away.”

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Second, the Broncos usually win at home. They’re 6-1 this year in mile-high Denver, which is a hard place to play for any visiting team, let alone a young team, and New England is the league’s second youngest.

Finally, the Patriots haven’t yet developed a very sophisticated offense. Their offensive coordinator, Dick Coury, is innovative and pass-wise, but MacPherson, fresh out of college football, still wants to run.

When they argue about it, MacPherson says: “Someday we’ll pass more.”

Coury replies: “How about now?”

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Says MacPherson: “Have patience.”

So as Denver scored 10 points in the first 10 minutes, New England played the first quarter without making a first down.

Nor did it ever get much better for the Patriots, who came out throwing in the third quarter to get their field goal, then subsided.

Their quarterback, 6-foot-5 Hugh Millen, will be a winner eventually, although at the moment he lacks both experience and a full ship of helpful shipmates.

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On passing downs, Millen was sacked five times and rushed continually, but blamed no one.

“I’ve got to make the plays regardless of the protection,” he said.

Against the Broncos, Millen completed 19 of 36 passes for 245 yards and showed long-pass power and the ability to throw touch passes with a smooth, quick delivery. But when throwing interceptions, he also showed his reading inexperience.

The Patriots’ best players are wide receiver Irving Fryar, who caught four passes for 81 yards, and rookie offensive tackle Pat Harlow. Their problem is that they have yet to find enough Fryars and Harlows.

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Worse, MacPherson still lines the Patriots up too often in the I formation, thus telegraphing runs by 235-pound rookie Leonard Russell.

Elway often telegraphs passes, too, but Elway can get away with that. Throwing repeatedly on target, he advanced Denver 80 and 67 yards to its two touchdowns, which were scored on a picture-perfect, 21-yard end-zone pass to wide receiver Vance Johnson and a 12-yard quick-draw sprint by running back Greg Lewis.

Elway completed 18 of 25 passes for 215 yards against a defense led by Denver’s former defensive coach, Joe Collier.

Gaston Green grossed 26 yards in 14 carries but lost 19 on a fumble to net seven.

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Denver’s leading receiver, Michael Young, who caught five passes for 76 yards, figures that on a winter day against New England, Elway called 90% of Denver’s plays.

“We gave John some ideas, and he used them,” Young said.

His coaches also gave Elway some ideas.

“He was comfortable with the game plan,” Reeves said of his veteran quarterback, who has doubled as the signal-caller about half the time lately.

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Said Elway: “The hardest thing about play-calling, for me, is handling the personnel, when it’s really complicated, getting them in and out of the game.”

Reeves made it simple this time, and Elway appreciated it.

In receiver Young’s view, however, Elway, heading into the last three games of the season, is only 70% well.

“That makes him better than 90% of the other quarterbacks,” Young said.

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