DENVER, JAN. 15 -- The Denver Broncos and their fans are preparing for this AFC championship game the only way they know how: a fan paints his suburban house orange, a judge wears an orange robe to court and another important Bronco goes to the hospital with an injury.

This time, it's Vance Johnson's turn. Denver's receiving leader in passes caught, yards and touchdowns, he almost certainly will miss Sunday's AFC championship game here against the Cleveland Browns because an injured groin has led to complications.

Even though he hadn't practiced much all week, he felt sure the groin injury -- suffered in the AFC division playoff game against Houston last week -- would improve enough by the end of the week for him to play.

But late Thursday night, he nearly fainted while showering and was taken to St. Luke's Hospital, where doctors discovered he was bleeding internally from the groin injury. One of Denver's "Three Amigos" receivers, he is expected to be hospitalized at least two days, but has told teamates he might try to sneak out by game time.

Such an injury, especially this close to a conference title game, would panic most NFL coaches. But this was hardly a day of nail-biting at the Broncos' practice facility.

Yes, they will miss Johnson, who caught 42 passes for 684 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season. But the Broncos have lost 10 players -- all starters or regulars -- for a total of 70 games during the season, still managing to finish 10-5-1 and win the toughest division in pro football, the AFC West.

Coach Dan Reeves says rookie Ricky Nattiel will start; quarterback John Elway says running back/receiver Steve Sewell will start. "But it hardly matters," said Steve Watson (who could also start), "because we've all had to approach every game as if we're going to start because of the number of injuries. This is about par for the course."

Elway, certainly not pleased with the latest news from Red Cross, said: "Happens every week."

More than a few Broncos were upset with the way Johnson became injured. Houston Oiler John Grimsley hit him late, knocking him out of the game. Grimsley was penalized 15 yards. The Broncos didn't complain publicly at the time, even though Jerry Glanville's Oilers have been accused of cheap-shotting half the league.

Mark Jackson, another "Amigo," said Reeves had warned the offensive players, particularly the vulnerable receivers and running backs, to "cover up and protect yourselves."

But it's difficult, probably impossible, to deflate the Broncos' mood this week.

The town won't allow it.

If there's any city in the country that takes its football as seriously as Washington, that city is Denver, another town that -- not coincidentally -- doesn't have major league baseball.

A Denver victory over Cleveland could shock newcomers to the Jefferson County courthouse on Monday. Judge Frank Johnson wears orange after Broncos playoff victories. He's done it twice and plans to on Monday.

This is the same Judge Frank Johnson who takes two weeks of his vacation time every summer to work as a ballboy. "The guy just didn't want the title," one Bronco said. "He did the grungiest stuff . . . in the locker room."

Broncomania has never been more evident than this week. Well, maybe it was in 1977 during the days before the Super Bowl when one man wandered into a bar in North Denver and made the mistake of turning on the juke box when the other patrons were intently tuned in to a pre-Super Bowl special on the Broncos. The man who plugged in the juke box was stabbed.

It hasn't come to that yet, although a man in suburban Aurora who painted his house completely orange did draw some criticism from some neighbors who thought it a bit tacky. The painter accused some of the neighbors of being Cleveland fans.

He wasn't the only Broncomaniac handy with colors and a brush. A woman appeared on television with her pinkie painted, not orange, but with a likeness of John Elway's face.

Television is a big part of Broncomania. When it was learned that Vance Johnson was in the hospital, at least one station ran a crawler across the bottom of the screen, the kind you normally associate with a hurricane or some other emergency.

Broncos fans really have to strain their loyalties every Monday night at 6:30. That's when Reeves appears on one local station, KCNC-TV-4, while various Denver players appear simultaneously on KUSA-TV-9. Reeves, by the way, has a higher rating.

NBC is expecting nine of every 10 televisions in use on Sunday between the hours of 2 and 5 p.m. to be turned to the Denver-Cleveland game. And local police, whether they're Denver fans or not, are rooting for the Broncos because a recent police department study showed that the suicide rate in recent years has been higher after the Broncos lose.