When Denver's Rich Karlis' 25-yard field goal attempt with 39 seconds remaining bounced off the right upright and back onto the field, it did more than preserve the Seattle Seahawks' 27-24 victory at Mile High Stadium.

It robbed a high-stakes football game of what it richly deserved. Overtime.

The AFC West's identical twins -- teams with outstanding defenses and kicking games but cautious, no-frills offenses -- matched each other point for point and seemed destined to end regulation tied. Then Karlis, who hadn't missed inside the 30 all season, "lined up wrong," he said, and smacked the right upright so hard the ball landed near the five-yard line.

He sent the Seahawks into ecstasy -- and into a first-place tie with the Broncos at the top of their division with identical (of course) 11-2 records. They will play each other again on the final day of the regular season.

Yet something was wrong. Seattle receiver Steve Largent, who caught a team-record 12 passes for 191 yards, noticed it.

"I'm not sorry he missed it," Largent said, "but it would have been fun to go into OT, too."

The Broncos, who had won 10 games in a row before today, appeared headed in that direction when quarterback John Elway, working out of the shotgun with three minutes to play, drove his team from his 20 to the eight.

His final play, on third and 10 from the 14 with 1:05 remaining, set up the obvious. He ran a quarterback draw six yards, leaving the ball just inside the right hash mark.

As Karlis ran in, Seattle called time to set up what it thought would be a final drive to untie the game. And then . . . .

"Everything was perfect," Karlis said. "The snap, the set. The only thing I can think of is that I didn't line myself up right."

It was the one time the Broncos could not claw their way back to equality.

The score stood at 17-17 early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Dave Krieg, who completed an astounding 30 of 44 passes for 406 yards and three touchdowns, threw a three-yard pass to Largent, for a 24-17 lead.

It was Denver's turn in this game of dueling touchdowns. But, on a first-down pass from his 36, Elway threw to tight end Clarence Kay, who, untouched, let the ball slide out of his hands almost as soon as he touched it.

Incompletion or fumble? Line judge Bama Glass picked the latter, and, within minutes, Seattle's Norm Johnson kicked a 28-yard field goal for the 10-point lead with 6:32 left.

Elway led the Broncos back in a two-minute, 78-yard drive that ended in a nine-yard scoring pass to running back Gene Lang, but the damage had been done.

"I never had the ball," said Kay. "I turned around (to look at Glass) and wondered what in the world he called."

Glass said, "I saw the man have the ball in his hands, the foot down, the second foot clearly down, and then the ball comes loose."

This game was expected to be a bruising struggle between the NFL's two stingiest defenses, in which even the kicking games were supposed to outshine the no-frills offenses.

That lasted for 15 seconds.

On the first play from scrimmage, Krieg threw an 80-yard touchdown bomb to wide receiver Daryl Turner, who was several steps in front of cornerback Mike Harden when he caught the ball and raced down the sideline. This stunned the raucous, all-orange gathering of 74,922 into sudden silence.

It also, subtly, might have opened up the middle for Seattle's passing game. "They had to keep their minds open after that," Krieg said.

The Broncos spent the rest of the half catching up, which they finally did when Elway, who was 15 of 27 for 275 yards, completed a 19-yard scoring pass to Butch Johnson with 4:53 remaining in the half to tie the score, 10-10.

Sandwiched in the middle were two long Seahawks drives that netted a grand total of three points on Johnson's 33-yard field goal (he missed a 29-yard try on the other drive), and a short drive that gave the Broncos their matching field goal, a 27-yarder by Karlis.

Midway through the third quarter, Seattle struck on a four-play, 80-yard drive to go ahead, 17-10.

Immediately, Denver answered with a four-play, 75-yard drive to make things even again.

"They caught up at halftime, they caught up in the third quarter, they almost caught up at the end of the game," said Krieg, whose 406 passing yards were 229 more than the team's average. Consider, however, that his offensive line gave him up to nine seconds to throw, and that Denver, was giving up the fewest points in the NFL, also has the league's second-worst passing defense.

Krieg began from his 20 by throwing over the middle to Largent, who broke away from Harden for a 65-yard gain. Later, Largent said of the game, "It was a blast."

Two running plays accounted for nine yards, setting up third and one at the six. Krieg dropped back and had time to look at one, two, then three receivers before fullback David Hughes released out of the backfield into the middle of the field and caught the scoring pass.

That was one of the plays Krieg called "improvisations," when he was given enough time by his line to free-lance. Hughes was supposed to be strictly a blocker on the play.

The Broncos tied the score in 1 minute 58 seconds. Starting from the 25, Elway handed off twice to Sammy Winder for 10 yards before he threw a swing pass to running back Gerald Willhite, who ran 63 yards down the sideline to the two.

On the next play, Lang went the final two yards for the touchdown to tie the game with 7:16 remaining in the quarter.

The Broncos kept up for a while, but not in the end. Denver linebacker Tom Jackson thought it might go on forever.

"I think this game was a tribute to the AFC West," he said. "I'm in awe of this division. I think it would have been fitting if we had made the field goal and gone into overtime.

"Neither team would ever say die."