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BILLS DREAD DENNIS SMITH'S RETURN TO DENVER

Maybe if the Denver Broncos had won a game, they wouldn't have had to re-sign Dennis Smith. Then, maybe Thurman Thomas wouldn't be looking ahead to tonight's game with such dread.

Smith is a 14-year veteran, a six-time Pro Bowler and one of the hardest-hitters around. But the Broncos decided their salary cap money would be better spent on another safety.He was still looking for an NFL job when Denver lost its third consecutive game to start the season - its worst start since 1968. Owner Pat Bowlen stepped in and signed Smith.

The news sent a shudder through Thomas, who still remembers a goal-line hit Smith put on him in 1990. Smith also had a tremendous game in the 1992 AFC Championship game, which the Bills won 10-7.

"That's something I didn't want to hear because the guy has been a pain every time we've played them," Thomas said. "I'm not intimidated by him; he just scares the hell out of me."

Buffalo (2-1), which has been in the last four Super Bowls - losing them all - can move into a tie with Miami for the lead in the American Football Conference East Division with a victory. The Broncos are last in the AFC West.

The Bills running back said his whole body went numb the last time Smith hit him. This time, he said with a smile, when he sees Smith coming he'll just go down.

"He doesn't care about his body," Thomas said, "and he doesn't care about the other player's body."

Without Smith, the Broncos have given up 110 points in their first three games. Immediately after signing him, coach Wade Phillips installed him in the starting lineup.

"It was becoming painfully obvious that Dennis was missed," linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said. "He's an intimidating force on the football field. A running back has to keep in his mind that No. 49 has to be around here somewhere. . . . Once you get hit, you remember it."

Smith's presence will shore up a Broncos defense that desperately needs help. They are coming off a 48-16 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders - their worst home loss since 1968.

And it might even be a spark for the offense.

"When you see a guy like Dennis, who has been doing it so long, and he makes a big hit, I think that gets everybody fired up," tight end Shannon Sharpe said. "The defense wants to make a big hit and we want to go out and put some points on the board.

"The big thing is, he's going to be part of this when we turn this thing around."

With Smith in the lineup, Steve Atwater will probably move back to free safety. For now, though, the Broncos plan to use five defensive backs to help neutralize Buffalo's three wide receivers.

That means cornerback Randy Hilliard moves into the starting lineup, Mecklenburg shifts to defensive end, and Shane Dronett, Dan Williams and Ted Washington will rotate at the other two line positions.