Behind enemy lines: Denver

Taking an inside look at the Denver Broncos, who can clinch an AFC wild-card playoff berth with a win over the 49ers in Sunday's regular-season finale.

Quietly, Broncos kicker Jason Elam is having one of his best seasons. Elam is tied for the best field-goal percentage in the NFL with Baltimore's Matt Stover. Elam has hit 92.3 percent of his field goals, which would be a career best.

Elam, who is 36, looks around the league and sees kickers like Atlanta's Morten Andersen, New Orleans' John Carney and Stover having big years, and said he is encouraged. Elam is the youngest of that foursome of kickers.

"I feel like I can go on for a long time," Elam said. "All those guys are older than I am, and they're doing pretty good."

Elam hasn't missed since Oct. 22 against Cleveland. He has only tried one field goal longer than 50 yards this season but feels like he still has good range. He made his only 50-yard attempt. He said he was practicing his rookie year and kicked a 37-yard field goal over the net. He tests himself from that range all the time.

"I'll go back to 37 yards and say 'How far up the net am I hitting them?'" Elam said. "That's how I judge. And it's about the same."

Elam said he has no plans on retiring. He still enjoys playing and hasn't lost anything yet. "It's a year-to-year thing," Elam said. "I feel like I'm having fun and feel like I'm kicking well and the season is going by fast. As long as that's the case, I want to keep playing as long as they'll have me."

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Broncos running back Tatum Bell said struggling late in the season, and losing playing time to Mike Bell after fumbling in each of the past two games, has affected his play.

"I've got to hit the hole, quit thinking too much, quit worrying about the fumbles, quit worrying about Mike coming in and taking over," Tatum Bell said.

Tatum Bell has only 79 rushing yards the past two weeks. Each week, a lost fumble has led to a touchdown, and Mike Bell has gone into the game. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he has faith in Tatum Bell and told him to quit worrying about the fumbles. However, Shanahan also acknowledged that Tatum Bell won't be playing if he continues to fumble.

"I know if I fumble, I won't be in there," Tatum Bell said. "Especially if I fumble and Mike goes in there and does well, I sure won't be in there."

He added that the fumbles have been caused by a lack of concentration. He thinks that he has struggled to run the ball lately because he isn't hitting the hole hard enough, and he has been too patient on his runs instead of running aggressively.

"I just got to get back to playing," Bell said.

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Broncos safety John Lynch celebrated his latest Pro Bowl invitation by showing he was worthy.

Against Cincinnati last Sunday, Lynch flew around the field. The 35-year-old delivered two crushing hits in the first quarter. He drilled running back Rudi Johnson at the line of scrimmage, to the delight of the fans. Later, he nailed receiver Chris Henry as Henry tried to haul in a pass near the end zone. Henry fell to the turf and dropped the ball.

The Broncos are in the playoffs as a wild-card team if they beat San Francisco or the Chiefs lose to Jacksonville on Sunday. Lynch's huge hits are a big reason the Broncos beat the Bengals last week and are still alive in the race.

"Sometimes you can't discount the impact of that on a team," Lynch said. "It sets the tone for everyone, it gets everyone excited and making plays. You try to do what you can do, and I was able to get some good ones."

Coaches and teammates can tell Lynch is ready for another playoff run.

"He's like a daisy," defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said. "He gets excited to play, he's a character man, and this man is talented."

Cornerback Darrent Williams said after Lynch's big hit on Johnson, Lynch came back to the huddle looking ecstatic.

"He had this big grin like I've never seen," Williams said. "I've seen him laugh like that in practice, but not in games. He was real excited. He told me he felt like he was 25 again, how he was going out there flying around, laying people out."

Lynch saved his biggest play for the fourth quarter. The Broncos weren't set as the Bengals, who ran a no-huddle offense most of the day, snapped the ball. Rudi Johnson ran right, Lynch avoided a couple of blockers and stuck his helmet on the ball Johnson cradled, popping it loose. The Broncos, who led by seven points at the time, recovered.

Lynch, who was tied for fourth on the Broncos in tackles when he was named to the Pro Bowl, is still a key figure on Denver's defense. He's good at helping middle linebacker Al Wilson get the players lined up correctly and he's capable of big plays like he made on Sunday. The Broncos also like the example he sets in the locker room.

"He plays like he's still hungry," Williams said. "He's got a Super Bowl ring, and some guys when they get Super Bowl rings and have been in the league so long and have made all the money, they get content. But John works hard every day in practice."

Being in the race seems to have rejuvenated Lynch, who said he was excited to play against the Bengals. Both teams felt they needed to win to make the playoffs.

"I feel great," Lynch said. "It felt like a playoff atmosphere from the start. The crowd was up, there was snow in the air, and it felt like football the way it's meant to be played. I was having a blast out there."

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The Broncos might have their playoff seed clinched by the time they play on Sunday. If the Chiefs lose to Jacksonville, they clinch a playoff spot. If the Jets also lose, the Broncos are guaranteed the fifth seed.

Shanahan has rested starters in previous situations in which his team can't change its playoff seed. He said this time he wouldn't consider it.

"If I didn't do it last year, do you think I'd do it this year?" Shanahan said.

Last year, the Broncos had the second seed and a bye in the playoffs wrapped up. In 2003, the Broncos had their playoff seed clinched before kickoff and Shanahan rested many starters in a game at Green Bay.

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The Broncos were pleased to beat Cincinnati, obviously, because it kept them in the AFC playoff race. Also, it was nice to get a home win, which hasn't been automatic this year. The Broncos were 8-0 at home this year and have lost three at home already this year.

"That's something we pride ourselves on, is an 8-0 record at home," defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. "For some reason we haven't been able to get it done. Every home game we've lost we've been ahead at halftime and found a way to lose it."


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