Injuries forced at least 18 players out of at least part of Sunday's Atlanta-Denver NFL game -- 10 never returned -- but Falcons' trainer, Jerry Rhea, believes it a case of "two physical teams," not two teams lacking conditioning because of the eight-week strike. "I can't see any difference," said Rhea after this third game since the settlement. Last year's third game, he recalled, "was a disaster. We lost Joel Williams, Jeff Merrow and Warren Bryant for most of the season and a bunch of other people got hurt. It almost wiped us out." This time, the Falcons' only protracted loss is backup tight end Russ Mikeska (strained knee)--opening up a job given yesterday to ex-Eagle Keith Krepfle . . .

Wesley Walker of the Jets burned him for three touchdowns Monday night, and Wayne Smith, a Lions starter at cornerback 21 straight games, was quoted in print as saying, "Yeah, I played bad, but I can live with that. I'll be back." Coach Monte Clark read it and, "to go on record that I can't live with it," yesterday unconditionally released Smith . . . St. Louis picked up Smith, waiving CB Tim Collier, but itself was burned trying to activate LB Eric Williams, via procedural waivers off injured reserve; L.A. Rams claimed Williams . . .

Due at work today for Denver's Broncos, 11 weeks since discovery he had colon cancer: defensive backfield coach Richie McCabe. Six weeks since surgery, "I still think I'm a tough guy."