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Surprising Broncos lift NFL hopes a mile high; coaching changes

When the Denver Broncos just did make the National Football League playoffs last season, nobody took them seriously - and for good reason. The Broncos finished 21st defensively among 28 teams, and 26th offensively.

Nobody was writing any sonnets about John Elway either, even though the rookie from Stanford was probably the most publicized first-year quarterback to come into the NFL in two decades. Even though Elway's problems weren't strictly of his own making (the Broncos asked him to do too much too soon), he did finish with the lowest passer rating of any QB in the league's American Conference.

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Now, after last Sunday's 22-19 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders (the second time they have beaten them this season), the Broncos have their fans talking Super Bowl.

Premature? Maybe. Out of the question? Absolutely not for a team that is currently 8-1 and leading the NFL in fewest points yielded (118) so far this season.

The two main problems Coach Dan Reeves had last year were with his offensive line (finding people who could hold a block) and his linebackers (finding people who could move well laterally). Both were solved in training camp.

Meanwhile Elway, whose choice of pro football over a lucrative baseball contract with the New York Yankees received so much attention last year, seems to have made the twin adjustment of reading defenses and waiting long enough to find his secondary receivers when his primary targets are covered.

Asked for comments on the Broncos' progress, Reeves replied: ''All I know is that we have been making the plays it takes to win. The exciting thing is that we haven't come close yet to how good we can be offensively.'' Coaching shakeups bring mixed results

Ron Meyer got fired as head coach of the New England Patriots because General Manager Pat Sullivan felt the team was better than its won-lost record indicated. Meyer's dismissal also reportedly stemmed from too often ignoring the game plan of defensive coordinator Rod Rust in order to substitute innovations of his own. The long-time reputation Rust's defensive units had for regularly holding opponents below their scoring average and occasionally pitching shutouts was what saved him with Sullivan after Meyer suddenly cut Rod loose without consulting Sullivan. New England, after rehiring Rust and replacing Meyer with former star Baltimore Colts receiver and ex-Patriots' assistant coach Raymond Berry, was outstanding Sunday in a 30-20 victory over the New York Jets.

The Cleveland Browns, who fired Coach Sam Rutigliano after the team had lost seven of its last eight games, did not fare so well, losing to the New Orleans Saints 16-14. Rutigliano, who reminded his critics recently that United Press International had named him AFC Coach of the Year in both 1979 and 1980, and that he was still the same man, was succeeded by Browns' defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer. The next NFL head coach to be given a map, a suitcase, and a $2 watch could well be Monte Clark of the 3-6 Detroit Lions. Elsewhere around the NFL

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* Warning: Don't underestimate the St. Louis Cardinals in the NFC East. They have now won four straight with Sunday's 34-14 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. Nobody contains the Cardinals very well, a tribute to the team's offensive line, which has consistently given quarterback Neil Lomax enough time to recite the Gettysburg Address before he has to throw the ball.

* The in-season retirement of 39-year-old quarterback Kenny Stabler of the New Orleans Saints is a perfect example of what can happen when a player hangs around one year too long. At the time he quit, Stabler had completed only 33 of 70 pass attempts, all in losing efforts against the 49ers, Rams, and Cowboys.

* The Los Angeles Rams are now thinking about a wild-card playoff berth after being taken apart last week 33-0 by their chief division rival, the San Francisco 49ers. Offensively the Rams have too many dry spells to be considered a top team. Meanwhile, San Francisco's Bill Walsh is having a Coach of the Year season with the 8-1 49ers, who have been a lot better than most pre-season forecasters predicted.

* Obviously this is not the same Washington Redskins team that has appeared in the last two Super Bowls. Probably the best way to describe the retreat of the Redskins is that they don't make the important third-down plays with nearly the same consistency as before. In Sunday's 37-13 loss to the improved but still unrefined New York Giants, Washington quarterback Joe Theismann threw 10 consecutive passes at one point in the first half and didn't complete any.

* While people like to poke fun at Tom Landry's plastic image, Humphrey Bogart fedora, and Mt. Rushmore countenance, Landry's Dallas Cowboys are never down for long. When Tom decided to go with Danny White at quarterback against the Indianapolis Colts instead of Gary Hogeboom, White saddled up and rode his throwing arm to two first-half touchdowns and a 22-3 Cowboy victory against the Colts.

* Although nobody in the NFL is comparing the 6-3 Chicago Bears to the unbeaten Miami Dolphins, the Bears' pass rush is among the best in pro football. Last week Chicago's defensive line sacked Minnesota quarterback Archie Manning 11 times in a 16-7 win over the Vikings. However, even with ace running back Walter Payton going for him, Bears' coach Mike Ditka is not happy with the club's inconsistent offense.

* Had he been at Sunday's game at Arrowhead Stadium between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, former Ohio State coach Woody Hayes would probably have left in a huff before the end of the first period. An even 100 passes were thrown in that game, 54 by the Bucs' QB Steve DeBerg, 46 by the Chiefs' Bill Kenney. The host Chiefs won, 24-20, to go one game over the .500 mark in the AFC West. Meanwhile, Green Bay's 41-9 volcanic eruption against the Detroit Lions ended a Packers' losing streak that had reached seven straight.

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