Butch Johnson, we all know. He's the former Dallas Cowboys receiver now running down passes in Mile High country, and still performing that particular dance of pomp and frivolity he calls the "moon sneak."

Johnson takes in a touchdown reception -- as he did twice Sunday in the Broncos' 26-19 win over New England -- and his legs turn into "stupid, spontaneous, unprogrammed" things that send him skating across the end zone.

Such acts of self-indulgence often draw little yellow flags from the officials, and Johnson, who is not one to understate his feelings and often lapses into confessional spiels that leave you moved if not altogether exhausted, has been heard to chide himself this week for his one-man show.

But what Johnson wants you to know is that these good times deserve a moment or two of extemporaneous expression, what with Denver being 9-1 and happily settled in at first in the AFC West.

The Broncos, who play the Chargers (5-5) Sunday in San Diego, are on a remarkable eight-game winning streak that ties a team record. The last time the Broncos enjoyed such success was in 1977, when they won six straight, ended 12-2 and lost to Dallas in Super Bowl XII.

Johnson, then with the Cowboys, helped beat Denver, 27-10, in that season finale by catching a touchdown pass, a singular accomplishment that "helped make my transition here very, very nice," he said. The other day, dawdling away the moments between lunch and a team meeting, Johnson couldn't help but draw comparisons between the old glory days in Dallas and the new ones here. And between Dan Reeves, the Broncos' coach, and Tom Landry of the Cowboys.

"The only thing similar between the two is the language and terminology they use on offense," Johnson said. "Otherwise, they're completely different. Tom was too quiet, while Dan is more concerned with what's going on around him. Dan knows what it's like being a player, and he'll take you out to dinner and talk things over with you if he thinks that'll help you out.

"At Dallas, Mark Washington played for Landry 10 years and he didn't even know where his office was when they came around and cut him. Dan is close to his players. He'll cheer for you during the game and hug you when it's done. Landry, on the other hand, would walk in a meeting and say a few words -- 'You played a good game' -- and leave. Should I go on?"

Reeves, in his fourth year with the Broncos, spent most of his professional football career in Dallas, as a player and an assistant coach. Although Reeves was greatly inspired by Landry, players are quick to point out differences in their personalities.

They say Reeves is loose and compassionate, quick to laugh and let on signs that he's enjoying himself, even under immense pressure. Words like "togetherness" and "unity" and "pride" pop up periodically when the players talk about Reeves, and they compare the mood he's established to that of an enthusiastic college team new to the spoils of victory.

"When Coach Reeves arrived here he was known as a great offensive coach," said Tom Jackson, a 12-year veteran linebacker and all-pro. "He's finally gotten his system established here -- with (quarterback) Johnny Elway coming on strong on offense and the defense really responding -- and we're all working toward something.

"We want to be around in the end when people start talking playoffs and division championships and Palo Alto (site of this year's Super Bowl). We want to maintain our consistency, from game to game, and not look too far down the line. The way I see it, we've been invited to the wedding but we're just not there yet."

The Broncos, called "the luckiest team in the NFL" by some opponents this season, are braced against an emotional letdown and working hard to maintain their steely edge with six games remaining.

The Seattle Seahawks (8-2) and the Los Angeles Raiders (7-3), who play each other Monday night, follow closely behind in the division standings. Although the Broncos could conceivably go 2-4 the rest of the season and make the playoffs, Reeves warns against "not understanding the importance of every single game."

He said, "I hear about all the luck we've been having, but it doesn't bother me when people talk like that. I think luck has everything to do with preparation. And I think our team being prepared has caused a lot of good things to happen. I've been in games where we felt we'd played a lot better than the other team and still ended up with less points than them. This team has been able to reach down and find a little something extra when it had to win the ball game. And nobody ever gives up."

Among those contributing to the Broncos' success is Elway, maturing into the excellent offensive leader the club had hoped for when he was the first player picked in the 1983 draft. Elway came down with a touch of flu at practice Wednesday and left shortly after participating in a six-on-seven drill, thereby retaining his right to start under Reeves' policy for injured or ill players. He joined a small list of players stricken by the bug Reeves said "lasts a couple of days then disappears."

Preparations this week have been intense, with Reeves returning to contact drills after a week off that apparently affected the team's timing and aggressiveness against the Patriots. Reeves, ever cautious, said they must approach San Diego as one would "a wounded animal" and recognize "they have their backs against the wall. If they lose, they basically have no chance at all for the playoffs."

Elway agreed. "There's really not that much difference between a 5-5 team and a 9-1 team," he said.

"San Diego is a tough bunch, even though their defensive stats aren't all that great. With (Dan) Fouts at quarterback, they can explode any time they touch the ball. In order to win, we're going to have to control the football and keep the defense off the field. We'll also have to put more points on the board than we have most of the season."

Wide receiver Steve Watson, who leads the team with 46 receptions for 711 yards and four touchdowns, said the Broncos will need a minimum of 25 points to stay close to San Diego, which has the AFC's second-best offense.

The Broncos have scored that amount in only three games this season, and in two of those, the defense accounted for much of the point production. The Broncos average a less-than-monumental 296.7 yards a game, compared to their opponents' average of 360.4. Against Buffalo, the Denver offense managed to score a season-high 37 points, but the Bills, at 0-10, are one of the worst teams in the NFL.

"A lot of people around the league are saying we're not that good," Jackson said. "And they're saying that we're not worthy of 9-1. Tell you the truth, that doesn't bother us at all. . . I think there's a little frustration from all over the NFL because they don't understand what's going on here, but it's no good worrying about it.

"We're together as a team. I think that because a lot of other teams can't see that, or touch it or draw a game plan against it or adjust to it at halftime in the locker room, they tend to be frustrated by what's going on here. Which is good football. And a whole lot of fun."