DENVER (AP) – So, are these Broncos as good as those Broncos?

After another impressive win, many are wondering how the 2005 Denver Broncos compare with the teams that won Super Bowls in 1997 and 98. Not surprisingly, the Broncos aren’t saying much on the topic, although coach Mike Shanahan does have the feeling this is a special team.

“I had a good feeling about this team before the season started,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of veteran leadership, a lot of character and now hopefully we can translate that to wins during the season.”

With their 31-17 victory over the Raiders on Sunday, the Broncos improved to 7-2 and took a two-game lead over Kansas City and San Diego in the AFC West. They are tied with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati for the second-best record in the AFC and two games behind undefeated Indianapolis.

Although it appears the postseason will go through Indy – a city in which the Broncos have been humiliated the last two years in the playoffs – there is a growing sense this team is different.

As good as the Super Bowl teams, though? “I don’t think you can start making those comparisons until January,” kicker Jason Elam told the Denver Post after the game.

Some comparisons:

• Right now, Jake Plummer is looking as good as anyone at the quarterback position in Denver since, yes, John Elway. Plummer has thrown 13 touchdowns and three interceptions this season, and with a passer rating of 93.5, he has climbed to seventh in the NFL. On Sunday, he threw another 22 passes without an interception to make it 193 in a row without a pick, which surpasses Elway’s record by three.

• The 1997-98 Broncos depended on Terrell Davis at running back. He ran for 1,750 and 2,008 yards. This season, it’s a two-back tandem, Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. Even though both were held under 100 yards against the Raiders, they’re each still on pace to crack 1,000 yards, which would make them only the fourth duo in the NFL to do that.

• Ashley Lelie has taken the place of Ed McCaffrey at receiver. Rod Smith is still Rod Smith. There isn’t much proven depth behind the top two, but there wasn’t in the Super Bowl years, either. And with the way the running game is going, there might not have to be. Also, there’s no one close to Shannon Sharpe’s caliber at tight end.

• The offensive line is blocking with the best of them. Denver’s running game is second in the NFL. After a year of adjusting without line coach Alex Gibbs, it appears this group might hang with the Super Bowl crews, although the 97 team did have Gary Zimmerman. Center Tom Nalen, a member of the title teams who is often overlooked because he doesn’t talk to reporters, is still playing at a high level, and many on the team think he could be Denver’s Most Valuable Player this year.

• The revamped defensive line has been superb. All four ex-Browns contributed big-time against the Raiders. Courtney Brown, Michael Myers and Ebenezer Ekuban all had sacks and constant pressure and Gerard Warren got his hand on a field goal attempt. They give the Broncos more depth there than they had during the Super Bowl years, when Neil Smith was the star and Trevor Pryce was up-and-coming.

• The linebackers, Al Wilson, Ian Gold and D.J. Williams, are considered the fastest group in the league. These days, not many are going to compare them unfavorably to any group that Bill Romanowski was part of, even though he and John Mobley were very good for the Broncos.

• No comparison at defensive back. Even when hurt, Champ Bailey is among the best. John Lynch has had a quietly effective year. Rookies Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth have been so good it allowed the Broncos to say goodbye to one-time starter Lenny Walls. This group compares favorably to Ray Crockett, Darrien Gordon, Tyrone Braxton and even Steve Atwater, one of Denver’s all-time greats.

All that said, the Broncos don’t have Elway. They still have four of their final seven games on the road, including a two-game stretch at Dallas and Kansas City. They’re still nowhere near guaranteed a first-round bye; at this point, it looks like they’ll be battling the Steelers and Bengals for that.

There is the ever-present issue of Denver’s recent tradition of fading down the stretch. And, by the way, has anyone mentioned the Broncos haven’t won a playoff game since that 98 Super Bowl?

“All we’re guaranteed right now is seven wins,” Shanahan said. “Even though we feel good about our football team and where we’re headed, we understand this is week by week and if you don’t think that way, you don’t finish strong.”

AP-ES-11-14-05 1948EST

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