DENVER, JAN. 16 -- The Denver Broncos and Cleveland Browns are eager to get on with this season's game.

When the Broncos host the Browns at 4 p.m. at Mile High Stadium, they will try to become the first AFC team since the Steelers of the late 1970s to make consecutive Super Bowls. And the Browns will try to beat them for the first time since 1974.

"The great thing about this game," Cleveland tight end Ozzie Newsome said, "is that we're both motivated by the same thing: losing. Denver didn't win {the Super Bowl}, either, and they have all the same motivation we do. If you're going to offer us sympathy {for last season} then you'd have to offer sympathy to them, too."

A year ago, John Elway led a 98-yard drive that sent the AFC championship game into overtime. Denver beat the Browns, 23-20.

Several Cleveland players maintain the Browns were the better team last year, to which Denver wide receiver Steve Watson said: "Having them say they were a better team, that we were lucky, that's one reason we want to play them again."

Elway said: "It's not like we beat them with some Hail Mary pass that bounced off the heads of three players and wound up in the arms of a Denver player in the end zone."

Cleveland is counting on a year's maturity from its whole team, including Bernie Kosar, the AFC's top-rated passer, to make the difference. In addition, the Browns have a healthier Newsome (four catches for 65 yards last week) and their complete backfield of Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack.

The Browns were first in the AFC in points scored (390) and third in passing. And if they get the ball inside the opponents' 20, they score 85 percent of the time.

Maturity is more than physical. The Dawgs, Cleveland's defense that was first in the AFC overall (No. 1 against the rush, fifth against the pass), have been oh, so deferential to Elway and his "Three Amigos" wide receivers.

"I think those guys have got to be in a class with {Seattle wide receiver Steve} Largent and those guys," Browns cornerback Hanford Dixon said, tongue just slightly in cheek. "They're playing well, they're quick, they're fast, they're good. I don't know if we can stop them. Frankie {Minnifield, the other cornerback} and I went on a diet this week to try and keep up with them."

Vance Johnson, Denver's leading receiver during the regular season (42 catches, 684 yards, seven touchdowns), is hospitalized with internal bleeding from a groin injury incurred last Sunday against Houston. Either Steve Sewell or rookie Ricky Nattiel will replace him.

"With all due respect to Vance," Browns Coach Marty Schottenheimer said, "I'd feel a little more confident if it were Elway."

But injuries are nothing new to the Broncos, who have survived 10 key players missing 70 games this season.

"I've never seen so many guys in my career get hurt," Elway said. "I've never seen so many broken bones, so many broken knees."

Still, Elway has a host of receivers to throw to, including resurgent tight end Clarence Kay, veteran Watson, Nattiel and Mark Jackson. Nattiel led the team in average yards per reception at 20.3. And the Broncos were the No. 1 offense in the AFC (374.9 yards a game) and set team records for net yards and total yards.

"I don't buy the one-man team theory," said Dixon, "because he's got a supporting cast in those 'Three Amigos' {Jackson, Nattiel and Johnson, when healthy} or whatever they call themselves. They don't have much of a running game but they keep on winning."

Cleveland defensive end Al (Bubba) Baker said: "I'll take the 45-man team concept over the one-man show any time. I'm not counting on Elway to have a bad day, now. But Denver talks about Elway as if he doesn't go to the bathroom. He's a good player, but not God.

"Nothing against him; I'm sure he's a nice guy, well worth the money . . . but I'm sick of hearing about John Elway. John Elway must be sick of hearing about John Elway."

The Browns have played an overshifting version of the Chicago 46 defense and it was their defense that was the catalyst in their victory last week over Indianapolis. Although the Browns are missing nose tackle Bob Golic, Dave Puzzuoli stepped in last week and had eight tackles.

"Results are all that matter," Schottenheimer said of Puzzuoli. "Dave Puzzuoli produces results. I get a kick out of the way he plays. He makes me angry because he doesn't do things the way we teach it, but he gets the job done."

But Schottenheimer has gotten into the act himself, saying the hand and foot movements Elway uses from the shotgun formation violate the rules and that Elway should be called for illegal procedure.

"I don't think he's violating anything whatsoever," Broncos Coach Dan Reeves said. "And if I've got a complaint about anything I think it should go through the league and not the newspapers. . . . It's not so much his motion as his voice inflection. He's got a loud voice and he varies it."

Offensively, a key for Cleveland will be the health of left guard Larry Williams, who has a twisted ankle. If Williams can't play, rookie Gregg Rakoczy would start.

"I think if you can isolate them maybe, one-on-one, you can have a little more success," Broncos defensive end Rulon Jones said. "I don't know how much it would be different {playing a rookie}, but you're obviously aware of it, and try to take advantage of it."

Denver will have safety Dennis Smith back in the starting lineup after missing seven weeks with a broken right arm. Kosar will try to beat a zone defense made more effective by Broncos linebackers' quick reaction to backs out of the backfield.

Defensive jack-of-all-trades Karl Mecklenburg has not been moved around nearly as much this season, playing only three positions instead of the seven he played last season.

"I'm more comfortable in the positions I play more," said Mecklenburg, second on the Broncos in tackles. "If it helps the team {to switch so much}, fine. But at this point everyone's seen what we've done in films. So we're not going to surprise anybody by moving."

So Cleveland, which hasn't had a world championship since 1964, will finally get another crack at it.

"This city hasn't had a love affair in so long," Browns owner and president Art Modell said. "We're a city of widows and bachelors. The Indians haven't done anything since 1954 and we haven't done anything since 1964. The people here want to get something and we want to give it to them."

"We played hard and we played well last year," said Dixon. "Deflected snaps, controversial field goals. It wasn't meant to be for us last year. They were destined that day, no matter what we did. This should be our year."

The wind picked up and the temperature dropped on the eve of the game. By game time, temperatures likely will be in the low to mid 40s with variably cloudy skies. It likely will be breezy.