DENVER, JAN. 11 -- In 23 seasons of playing and coaching professional football, Dan Reeves had earned the right to believe he had seen it all and dealt with it all.

But barely into the month of October, he realized his Denver Broncos were experiencing something completely unlike anything he had seen in his seven years as Denver's head coach or his 16 years as a player and coach with the Dallas Cowboys.

If it wasn't six players retiring, several unexpectedly, it was 14 regulars missing extended time because of injuries. There have probably been entire battalions with fewer injuries than the Broncos.

And many of those players who were healthy bickered with one another over the strike to the point that, after the strike, the Broncos lost to the Buffalo Bills.

After that 21-14 loss at Buffalo, the Broncos -- defending AFC champions -- were 4-3-1 and in a shell. They had come into training camp, after having lost in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants, determined to get back to the Big Game but with little prospect of doing so. So how do you explain the Broncos' second consecutive appearance in the AFC championship game, Sunday afternoon here, against Cleveland?

"There were two great low points," Reeves said Sunday after one of the high points, a 34-10 playoff victory over Houston. "One was the strike game we lost to Houston (40-10) because it felt like I was playing a game with my hands tied behind me while somebody was beating the daylights out of me.

"The second low point was the loss to Buffalo. Not because it was Buffalo, but because I had never seen our team not play hard."

John Elway calls the level of Denver's effort that day "disgusting."

But the effort and the hard feelings over the strike were things that could be worked out. Receiver Vance Johnson recalled today that Elway, the main player who wanted to cross the picket line, seized control of the team in private meetings, telling the players that they all enjoyed living in Denver too much to let anything intrude on that.

But the injuries were something beyond Reeves' control, even Elway's.

Bad enough that linebacker Tom Jackson, defensive backs Steve Foley and Louis Wright, defensive linemen Rubin Carter and Barney Chavous, and guard Paul Howard -- the guts of the 1977 "Orange Crush" team that lost to Dallas in the 1978 Super Bowl -- all retired before the season. But few teams have lost players of such importance to injury, and still contended for a title.

The litany: Steve Watson, a former Pro Bowl receiver, broke ribs Oct. 12 against the Raiders. Center Bill Bryan -- "who has snapped every ball since I've been coach here," Reeves said -- had major knee surgery for an injury suffered Oct. 19 against the Chiefs.

Running back Gerald Willhite broke a leg the next week against the Vikings. And the Broncos got three relatively injury-free weeks before safety Dennis Smith broke an arm in the second Raiders game. Wide receiver Rick Massie broke a leg against the Seahawks. And the Broncos found themselves scrambling for a strong safety when Randy Robbins needed knee surgery in mid-December.

The playoffs haven't been any different: strong safety Mike Harden became the third man at his position to go down when he fractured a forearm against the Oilers on the first play of Sunday's game.

Johnson dislocated a shoulder and missed one game. Another receiver, rookie Ricky Nattiel, has played through a broken left hand and a broken left thumb.

Cornerback Steve Wilson said, "I've played nine years in this league {the first three with Dallas} and I've never seen this many key players injured. And in so many cases, with three strong safeties and a center, you're talking about the guys who call the signals and direct the things that are going on."

So how have the Broncos done it? How have they won all seven of their home games this season while playing in probably the toughest division in football, the AFC West. How have they gone 7-1 since that embarrassing loss to Buffalo?

The most obvious theory is that Elway is as close to a one-man team as the NFL has. His dominance on the field (nearly 3,200 yards passing and the team's second-leading rusher) would suggest that. And he is even more dangerous since the team began using the shotgun (after the Buffalo game) on obvious passing downs to give him more flexibility. But he and Reeves reject the one-man-team theory summarily.

The Broncos, in fact, could not have continued to win without people who thought they would begin the year as backups, players such as right guard Stefan Humphries, who was traded by the Bears; Mike Freeman, who backed up Bryan at center; cornerback Mark Haynes, who is nearly back to his old New York Giants Pro Bowl form; and rookie safety Tyrone Braxton, who hasn't fretted even though he was thrown into the lineup without warning after Harden broke his arm.

Asked what injury hurt the team most, Reeves didn't know where to begin. "Billy Bryan going down was really big," he said. "And I almost choked when I heard Smith and Robbins were injured.

"People ask me if I'm a better coach this year than I was last year, and I'd have to say, 'Yes,' just because I've had to handle so many things, at least 10 situations, that I'd never dealt with before."

Now, with an 11-4-1 record and the best four-year home record in the league (28-4), there is talk of a Super Bowl appearance. "We're as ready as anybody," said linebacker Jim Ryan.