SAN DIEGO -- The line on John Elway's graph has steadied now. No dips, no blips, no more 300-yard games followed by five-interception performances. John Elway was very good a long time ago. But this year, in pursuit of greatness, he is kicking in the door.

When asked earlier this week to assess Elway's play this season, San Diego's Dan Fouts shook his head and said, "He's playing as well as a quarterback can play. If I was a fan looking at him, I'd know I was watching something special."

Elway has led a Denver Broncos team to 13 victories in a single season, he has driven a team 98 yards in the final moments of a game to qualify for the Super Bowl. He has proven to be durable, mobile and spectacular, sometimes on the same play. But greatness is something he still was shooting for coming into this season, and now he seems to have found it.

Even his coach, Dan Reeves, said recently: "Since John's been here he's been awfully good. But I don't know that I can remember him playing so consistently well over three games before this."

The three games in question were against the Bears, Raiders and Chargers. To challenge for the title in the AFC West -- the NFL's toughest division -- Denver had to win all three. And the Broncos played two of those games without three of their best offensive players. In those games, Elway completed 58 percent of his passes, threw for nearly 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. He had only three interceptions. His composite total is 20 for 34, 330 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

The Dolphins, 49ers and even the Bears could win games without Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Jim McMahon. Elway is the Broncos, and they know it. Mark Jackson, one of the three receivers known as "The Three Amigos" in Denver, said: "It's been said that we go as John Elway goes, and I'm not about to disagree."

Elway has a little too much "aw shucks" in him to agree with that. But he did acknowledge, minutes after throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns here Sunday against the Chargers, that he has accomplished something new.

"Early in my career," he said, "I had a problem with trying to do too much, taking too much on my shoulders. I've finally learned just to do my job." Asked if he has ever played so well over three consecutive games, he said: "No. I haven't been this consistent over three weeks. In fact, my goal has been to level things off; not to have one great week, then one bad one, followed by another great week but then another bad one."

He probably can remember each case. In 1983 he followed a 23-for-44, 345-yard, three-touchdown, zero-interception performance against the Colts with a 13-for-34, 143-yard zero-touchdown, four-interception game against the Chiefs.

The next season, he completed 16 of 22 passes for 210 yards and a touchdown against Detroit, only to follow up by completing 11 of 20 for 101 yards against Green Bay, at home no less. Even last season, he victimized the Bengals by completing 22 of 34 passes for 228 yards and three touchdowns, only to come back and complete 23 of 42 the next week, along with four interceptions.

Marino, drafted after Elway in the 1983 Quarterback Bonanza, had proved a quarterback doesn't need five years to mature. Even though the Broncos won 13 games in Elway's second season, they did so at times in spite of him. He often rushed when he should have thrown, fired instead of lobbed, zigged when he should have zagged.

The wait, however, apparently was worth it, because there has been little inconsistency lately. And despite a couple of off games -- one before the strike, one after -- he has completed 57.5 percent of his passes this season, which would be a career-high if he can maintain it. He has thrown 15 touchdown passes to eight interceptions. His touchdown-to-interception ratio also would be a career-best. He also rushed 240 yards, which makes him the team's second-leading runner.

The number of ill-advised, impromptu dashes have been reduced to almost none; he picks his spots to scramble and usually makes them count. He's averaging six yards per carry, more than a yard higher than his career average. Players, both teammates and opponents, see an improved player.

"I think that the John Elway we saw {Sunday}, compared to the one last year, is more mature," Chargers linebacker Chip Banks said. "He has developed the ability to read defenses quicker. He was able to scramble to find his receivers {not just for the sake of scrambling}. And overall, he is just smarter and now knows how to keep the drives alive."

San Diego safety Mike Davis added: "There are two things he's doing now that give a defense special problems. First, his scrambling is buying time for his receivers. And second, he's allowing his offensive linemen to reestablish their blocks. Is he playing as well as anybody in the game? Yes, but with an explanation. As a pure passer, no. But in terms of overall effectiveness, yes."

Ever since bailing his team out with the 98-yard drive that beat Cleveland in the AFC championship game, Elway plays best when he's in nearly impossible situations.

"It's probably from being behind at Stanford so much and having no choice," he said.

He seems to be most dangerous when it's third and long, as he was against the Chargers. Once, he turned third and 14 into a 16-yard gain, and later a third and 10 into a 29-yard rush up the middle. After falling behind, 14-0, to the Bears, he threw three touchdown passes. After throwing an interception returned 103 yards for a touchdown -- the longest in league history -- he came back and completed a 52-yard bomb on the next series.

"It's like he's at his best when it's doing things above and beyond the call of duty, the Superman stuff," Jackson said.

Take Elway away and the Broncos are an undistinguished team. With him, they look like the best team in the AFC heading into the last four weeks. What does Elway want next?

"I better make it four straight," he said.