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Broncos reborn, but still rebuilding 

One play, and then one drive, told the story Sunday night of the Denver Broncos suddenly coming back to life and giving the national audience a glimpse into their future.

First, the play: Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, still very much the same guy who guided the Steelers to their Super Bowl victory after the 2005 season, found himself smothered by a gaggle of defensive linemen whose names he probably didn't even know.

Jarvis Moss? Marcus Thomas? Elvis Dumervil? Tim Crowder?

They rudely introduced themselves to Roethlisberger and his offensive line throughout the night, but especially on one second-quarter play. Roethlisberger was hit by Dumervil and fumbled; Crowder picked up the loose ball, and the rookie from Texas took off with surprising speed for a 50-yard touchdown and a 21-7 Denver lead.

It wasn't the end of the drama, because the Steelers eventually looked like the playoff-bound team that they are. They came back to nearly force overtime until Jason Elam's game-ending field goal gave Denver the 31-28 victory.

But after weeks of meandering without direction, spark, leadership or sufficient talent in critical areas, the Broncos came back from their off week and put together their best performance of the season even with some of their stars out of the lineup. Hardly anyone gave them a chance against Pittsburgh without Champ Bailey, Javon Walker and Tom Nalen.

The much-revamped offensive line held up amazingly well. And the fast-maturing defensive front was even better, showing more raw quickness than Denver has had in its down linemen, perhaps ever.

Lots of NFL coaches will tell you that the defensive line often can make the biggest difference between mediocrity and the playoffs. With Dumervil in his second year, joined by rookies Moss, Crowder and Thomas, the Broncos could have a foundation for years to come.

Denver still needs considering help at linebacker, as evidenced by the staff working out nine yikes, nine unemployed linebackers during the team's off week. That undoubtedly will be the Broncos' top priority next spring in the draft, not to mention the free-agent market. But if the front line is winning more and more battles, that makes life easier for the linebackers.

The Sunday night victory, improving Denver to 3-3, doesn't guarantee anything for the final 10 games. In truth, just from a quick check of the remaining schedule, it's still hard to envision anything better than the Broncos repeating their 2006 finish of 9-7, which wasn't good enough to make the playoffs. In particular, they face a mean five-week stretch from Nov. 4 to Dec. 2: at Detroit, at Kansas City, resurgent Tennessee at home, then at Chicago and Oakland.

As you may recall reading here even in August, Denver desperately needed a fast start but that didn't happen, as 2-0 turned into 2-3.

Actually, during that off week, the fans who weren't diverted by the Colorado Rockies had made their unhappiness loudly known. Many even "suggested" it was time for Mike Shanahan to say goodbye and head for the front office.

Sunday night silenced all that. It also showed Bronco Nation that Shanahan and his staff already have been at work reshaping the roster and the lineup.

They also helped quarterback Jay Cutler into a better place mentally, which translated into vastly improved effectiveness Sunday night. Cutler mixed his targets and found his secondary receivers, including tight end Tony Scheffler and rookie running back Selvin Young.

Now, let's talk about that drive mentioned at the top: Cutler was at his best in the third quarter, after Pittsburgh marched to a touchdown that cut the lead to 21-14. Undaunted, Cutler merely went 7 of 7 on the ensuing series, an eight-minute drive capped by a short pass to Scheffler that made it 28-14. Cutler finished 22 of 29 for 248 yards and three touchdowns, arguably the best game of his young career against a top-quality opponent.

Now comes Green Bay on Monday night, another chance to knock off a division leader while most of the country watches World Series Game 5 (assuming, of course, the Fall Classic is not a sweep). It's also an opportunity for Cutler and that defensive line to take another step on the treacherous road toward Denver re-establishing itself as a legitimate NFL contender.

Nobody knows how long that journey will take. Sunday night, though, the mission suddenly seemed possible again.

SPORTS SHOT

Busy brooms
Great start for area college hockey, with Colorado College (now No. 4 in the polls) sweeping Minnesota and Air Force handling Quinnipiac.

Ready for hoops
NBA regular season opens Tuesday, with the Denver Nuggets starting Wednesday, Oct. 31, in an 8:30 p.m. home game against Seattle on ESPN.

See the standings?
Unlikely NFL division leaders: Green Bay, 5-1 in the NFC North, and Kansas City, 4-3 in the AFC Worst.

More ex-Sox
Boston bench coach Brad Mills managed Colorado Springs from 1993-96, including the Sky Sox' last PCL title team in 1995. He and Boston manager Terry Francona were college roommates at Arizona.

Showdown Saturday
Southern Cal at Oregon, 1 p.m., FSN; Florida vs. Georgia, 1:30 p.m., CBS; Ohio State at Penn State, 6 p.m., ABC; Cal at Arizona State, 8 p.m., FSN.


RALPH'S PICKS

Every week has its surprises, such as South Florida crashing back to reality last week, along with several other Top 15 teams. Week 9:

Upset specials
' California (taking 3) at Arizona State
' Rutgers (taking 6) vs. West Virginia
' Colorado State (taking 7) vs. Utah

Against the spread
' Connecticut (taking 5) vs. South Florida
' Kansas (giving 2) at Texas A&M
' Georgia (taking 9) vs. Florida
' San Diego State (taking 14) vs. BYU
' Colorado (taking 13) at Texas Tech

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