SAN DIEGO, JAN. 30 -- Every Super Bowl loser vows to get back the next year. After all, the loser usually has the same players, same coaches, the same plays -- if not better ones -- and loads of motivation.

The pain of losing last year's Super Bowl was so great for the Denver Broncos that club owner Pat Bowlen told them before the AFC championship game that if they were going to break all those Rocky Mountain hearts again they might as well lose right then, instead of coming all this way to lose another Big One.

So the Broncos, probably scared to death of becoming the Minnesota Vikings of the AFC, feel about as good as a team can heading into Sunday's Super Bowl XXII against the Washington Redskins in San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

Denver, which lost the Super Bowl in 1978 to the Dallas Cowboys and last year to the New York Giants, knows that going 0-3 will cause lots of questions and lots more heartache.

The Broncos (12-4-1) are as healthy as they've been any time this season; they have the closest thing to a truly unstoppable player in quarterback John Elway, and an opponent which, on paper, doesn't appear nearly as good as the Cowboys of the late '70s or last year's Giants.

Still, somehow the Broncos come off as the least impressive favorite in recent memory. Tom Jackson, a starting linebacker on last year's Denver team who is now a television broadcaster, said: "It's just part of the whole lack of respect thing that seems to follow around the Denver Broncos. The players on the team know that the only way to change that is to win a Super Bowl."

How the Broncos might go about that has been the subject of much speculation.

The theory goes that Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, given two weeks, can come up with an antidote to anything, even the kind of poison Elway can inject into an opponent.

Denver Coach Dan Reeves said earlier in the week that his team can run the ball if the Redskins shut down Elway and "The Three Amigos" passing connection.

That raised some eyebrows, considering the Broncos' top two rushers, not counting Elway (Sammy Winder and Gene Lang), gained fewer yards together than the Los Angeles Rams' Charles White.

"At least we can keep people off balance with our running game," Reeves said. "We're now able to run the football from the shotgun. . . . I don't think we're one dimensional. Winder doesn't have the speed or power of the great backs, but he has made the Pro Bowl, so his peers recognize what he can do."

Perhaps so. But most likely, the Broncos will not run the ball successfully against the Redskins, and they know it.

Teams with much better runners and running backs couldn't run the ball against the Redskins, who this season allowed opponents only 3.8 yards per carry.

It's safe to say the Broncos will throw. "Why change dramatically now?" running back/receiver Steve Sewell asked rhetorically.

What the Broncos will do is throw, and throw a lot.

The Redskins win almost every individual matchup on the field, offensively and defensively. Except one. Elway versus any Redskin.

The Broncos talk publicly about how much they worry about all the Redskins defenders. But in private, where the concerns have to be prioritized, the Denver coaches know Redskins tackle Dave Butz, good as he is, has about as much chance of catching Elway as a dinosaur would a rabbit.

Dexter Manley is fast, but the Broncos probably have figured ways to let Manley negate himself with wild, out-of-control rushes.

What Elway needs is for the right side of his line to hold up Charles Mann, Washington's best defensive player this season, long enough to let the Broncos receivers start free-lancing.

The Broncos have been going to the shotgun less and less the last two games, mostly on third and long. But it wouldn't be surprising to see Elway drop into the shotgun a little more against the Redskins.

Gibbs has said that a defense can only prepare to stop plays for approximately four to five seconds.

Elway, from the shotgun, buys himself two to three extra seconds. And no defensive backs, not even Darrell Green and Barry Wilburn, can cover that long in man-to-man defenses.

That's when the Broncos do what they do best. "You have to understand," Denver's Mark Jackson said, "that when John starts running around we all become primary receivers. John says it's like street ball when the quarterback just says, 'Go out, and you run around' until you lose the guy covering you."

Obviously, the Broncos have to take advantage of every opportunity, because their defense hasn't been able to stop many good teams this season.

Cleveland, if Earnest Byner hadn't fumbled at the goal line in the AFC title game, would have scored four times in five second-half possessions.

The Broncos' defense had only 30 sacks. And Karl Mecklenburg, Rulon Jones, Andre Townsend, Jim Ryan, Ricky Hunley and Simon Fletcher help comprise a decent enough front seven. Versatile and efficient, they hardly scare offenses.

The best defensive teams have won every Super Bowl of this decade, the Redskins once, Raiders twice, 49ers twice, Bears and Giants.

That's why Reeves has spent so much time the last two weeks telling his team that offensive teams get to the Super Bowl, defense wins it.

It would seem that the Broncos better have come up with something new to deal with Washington's offense, especially since Art Monk will be back in the lineup. The Broncos showed in the last weeks of the season that they have major problems covering a disciplined, possession receiver, such as Byner for Cleveland and Steve Largent for Seattle.

Denver defensive coordinator Joe Collier said his team's pass defense better improve for this one special game or go helplessly into another offseason of heartbreak.