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Broncos Make Chargers Say Ow

Pro football: Denver wins, 26-9, taking advantage of a defense missing a certain All-Pro linebacker.

October 07, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — A little humiliation goes a long way.

Just ask the Denver Broncos, whose 26-9 victory Sunday over the previously unbeaten San Diego Chargers came six days after a shameful loss at Baltimore, one that left the men in orange awfully red in the face.

"We just wanted to come out here and get our swagger back," said Denver's Sam Brandon, whose blocked punt resulted in a safety. "Come out and make plays like we usually do."

The Broncos and Chargers are 4-1, a half-game behind AFC West rival Oakland (4-0), the league's only undefeated team.

Denver quarterback Brian Griese, who had three passes intercepted at Baltimore, rebounded against the Chargers by completing 74% of his passes for 316 yards with two touchdowns--one coming on Denver's second play of the game, when Ed McCaffrey turned a short slant into a 69-yard score.

Griese has thrown touchdown passes in 20 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL. At one point in the first half, he completed 13 passes in a row, breaking the string only when he spiked the ball to stop the clock.

"As long as Griese keeps throwing the ball like he is and we keep catching it," tight end Shannon Sharpe said, "the sky's the limit for this offense."

Conspicuously absent from San Diego's defense was All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who watched in street clothes with a sprained left ankle. It was only the sixth game he has missed in his 13-year career. Teammate Marcellus Wiley, a standout defensive end, missed much of the second half because of a groin injury.

Donnie Edwards, San Diego's veteran linebacker, was flanked by rookie Ben Leber and first-time starter Zeke Moreno, who was filling in for Seau.

"I felt confident out there," said Moreno, in his second season out of USC. "Every game I get butterflies, but that just shows you you're alive."

No need to check the pulse of Denver's defense. The Broncos (3-2) limited San Diego's top-ranked rushing offense to 79 yards--101 shy of its average--partly because the Chargers gave up on the run after falling behind by 19 at halftime. LaDainian Tomlinson, who ran for 217 yards against New England last week and entered the weekend as the league's leading rusher, carried the ball once in the second half. He finished with 14 carries for 48 yards.

It was a strong first step for the Denver defense in a three-week run against top running backs. Next up: Miami's Ricky Williams, followed by Kansas City's Priest Holmes.

Linebacker John Mobley said the Broncos were surprised that Charger Coach Marty Schottenheimer "abandoned the run that soon."

But we're talking Schottenheimer, not Steve Spurrier, so things never got too crazy. Early in the third quarter when the Chargers were behind, 19-0, for instance, they opted to kick a 24-yard field goal rather than go for it on fourth and one at the Denver six.

By cutting the lead to 16, Schottenheimer reasoned, his team could still forge a tie with two touchdowns and two-point conversions. That's assuming San Diego's offense would get on track, which it never did.

"We just felt like we had to come out and prove the character of this football team," Denver linebacker Al Wilson said. "We wanted to show our fans around the country that Monday night's team is not who we are."

The player most ready to wash away the bitter taste of the Baltimore game was cornerback Deltha O'Neal, who was flagged for pass interference in the second quarter against the Ravens, intentionally bumped an official while arguing that call and was ejected. The NFL bumped back with a $15,000 fine.

So O'Neal was understandably elated Sunday after making two interceptions. On the first, the Chargers were on the Denver six early in the second quarter, and O'Neal reeled in a pass intended for tight end Stephen Alexander. O'Neal struck again in the fourth quarter, picking off another Drew Brees pass and returning it 28 yards for a touchdown. Forever the showman, O'Neal finished off the runback with a wide-legged waddle across the goal line. It was none too pleasing to Denver Coach Mike Shanahan, who has come down on O'Neal before for taunting.

"It was big," Shanahan said of the touchdown, which gave Denver a 26-3 lead. "But until he put that ball safely into the end zone, I was going to strangle him. It doesn't matter what you do once you get in the end zone, but you need to act like you've been there."

Hard to blame O'Neal for feeling so free. A week ago, he and Doug West, the team's equipment manager, were sitting in an otherwise empty visitors' locker room in Baltimore, watching on TV as the Ravens rolled up 31 points in the second quarter.

"It felt like punishment," O'Neal said of his stint in that spacious penalty box. "It felt like you were incarcerated or something.... Especially seeing the team go down the way we were going down, all the plays, all the mistakes we were making. It's hard not to be out there fighting with them. It's hard to explain that feeling, but I would never in my life want to do it again."

So when he made his way to the end zone Sunday, he couldn't help but dance. His explanation? "My mind went blank and my legs took over."

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