SAN DIEGO -- Midway through the regular season, the Denver Broncos hardly looked like a team on the road to Super Bowl XXII.

Retirement and injuries had wiped out nearly half of the people who had been responsible for last year's AFC championship. The team didn't have a running game and couldn't stop anybody, and worst of all, the players virtually gave up in a loss to Buffalo to fall to 4-3-1 on Nov. 8.

With a group of undefeated Chicago Bears regulars coming into Denver the next week, the Broncos were looking at the possibility of a .500 record. They were disgusted and they were desperate. Somehow, Denver summoned the wherewithal to turn its season around.

And that 21-14 loss to Buffalo may have been as significant to Denver's successful season as AFC playoff victories the last two weeks over Houston and Cleveland. On the flight home from upstate New York, the Broncos needed a road map to find their lost pride, not to mention the road to San Diego.

"It sure didn't look great when we were 4-3-1," quarterback John Elway recalled. "We were so disgusted with the way we played. It was almost like a shock therapy. The game wasn't fun, and it hadn't been for awhile. I was as guilty as everybody else and we all just went through the motions."

Several intense team meetings were called during the week. "There were a lot of feelings aired," receiver Mark Jackson said.

Some of those feelings had to do with the 24-day players strike. But a lot of teams, probably most of them, had to put aside hard feelings over the strike. Denver's problem was that its best player, the only one who could pull them out of the quicksand, was Elway, the man who had spoken publicly against the strike and about his loyalty to owner Pat Bowlen.

Normally a player who tries to lead by example and not words, Elway realized his quiet, somewhat serious nature wouldn't get the Broncos through this crisis.

"I had to take an active leadership role," Elway said. "By me talking it just seemed to loosen everybody up some, and we had to have that."

But could that solve all the problems? All the smiles in the locker room might make the Broncos feel more neighborly toward each other. But the Bears could destroy that brotherhood in a hurry. And Denver still had two games scheduled against then-hot San Diego, not to mention a trip to Seattle and a visit from New England.

"The thing I think we finally did, after the loss to Buffalo," Denver linebacker Jim Ryan said, "was to forget about the big picture, and concentrate on one game at a time. People don't like to hear talk like that because it's a cliche. But we had to do that.

"It was very basic."

Just as simple is the fact that the Bears could have, even should have, blown the Broncos away on Monday Night Football, Nov. 16. The Bears led, 14-0, and looked as if they were going up, 21-7, when a decision turned the game around and started a pattern.

Chicago Coach Mike Ditka sent William (The Refrigerator) Perry into the game, and quarterback Jim McMahon mistakenly handed the ball to him on the goal line. Perry fumbled, Denver recovered, the Broncos went on to tie, then win the game, 31-29. Spirits were a mile high, at least.

The new trend was that opponents simply couldn't avoid self-destruction once inside Mile High Stadium. Silly, almost inexplicable turnovers did in the Raiders, Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs, as Denver won six of its final seven games to win the AFC West with a 10-4-1 record.

Houston probably was no match for the Broncos under any circumstances. But the Oilers' fumble on a strange lateral pass into the end zone in the playoff game three weeks ago -- which Denver, of course, turned into a quick six points -- was another example of the Broncos' opportunistic season.

Rarely has a team been so much greater than the sum of its parts. With the retirement of five standouts following the loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XXI, Denver didn't appear to be that strong or that deep in the first place. Serious injuries (including broken arms, legs, ribs, and jaws) to 10 front line players, leading to 70 missed games, and it seemed Denver was just ordinary.

The statistics don't say anything special about the team. The Broncos finished the regular season 12th out of 28 teams in rushing, 20th against the run. No pass receiver had 50 receptions, neither of the two primary rushers averaged four yards per carry.

But two stats within the stats said the Broncos might not be so bad after all. Denver did not allow any back to rush for 100 yards in a single game all season, and Elway -- having as dominant season as a quarterback can possibly have -- led the offense to 400 or more total yards six times, twice to more than 500.

The basic Denver game after Buffalo went something like this: Opponent drives 70 yards, opponent fumbles or throws interception, Elway throws a 50-yard touchdown pass, Broncos win.

Now, Denver players are saying the Broncos are a better team than last year. Coach Dan Reeves says he's a better coach this season.

"If anybody had told me we'd not only survive this many major injuries, on top of the retirements, and still go to the Super Bowl, I'd have called him an idiot," Reeves said. "I'd probably have gotten out of the game. The reason I think that {he's a better coach} is based on the fact that I'm better able to deal with situations I hadn't been faced with before."

Reeves is up front in saying that the new rules related to the strike -- allowing more players on the roster -- helped Denver immensely.

"We've had to play more people this year," he said. "More people have contributed than would have normally. The 50-player roster {45 active plus five inactive after the strike} really helped us. Under the normal setup, we could not have done the things we did {with personnel}. We would have had to go into games short."

The Broncos even got a late-season boost from tight end Clarence Kay, who returned from his substance rehabilitation just in time for this playoff mini-series, with him playing the role of Mark Bavaro as if he intends to keep it into next season.

Many prognosticators, based on Denver's performance last season, came into 1987 expecting the Broncos to challenge again for the AFC title. "I thought our team was hungry going into the season because of the loss to the Giants," Reeves said. "They had enough of a taste to want to come back here."

Reeves and his team, only the third in AFC history to reach the Super Bowl two consecutive times, just didn't know how many trap doors they'd have to avoid before taking the blindfolds off to find themselves in the right place again on the most important week of the season.