In a game that evoked memories of the outlandish offensive displays of the old AFL, two of that league's charter members traded staggering body blows, only to see the outcome hinge on a weird play.
The San Diego Chargers prevailed 37-34 Sunday night when linebacker Junior Seau recovered a freak fumble by John Elway in the waning seconds.After directing the Broncos to the San Diego 3-yard line, Elway rolled to his right, spied a wide-open Anthony Miller in the end zone and attempted a pass. But the ball slipped out of his grip, and Seau plucked the fumble out of the air at the 8 with 35 seconds left.
"I just lost it, it slipped out of my hand," Elway said. "I couldn't believe he caught it."
Seau was equally surprised.
"I saw the ball twirling in the air," Seau said, "and I couldn't believe it was up there, coming from a guy who usually doesn't make those mistakes. Elway is the best at the two-minute drill. He's a stud. We were walking the fence, but we came out a winner this time."
Stan Humphries threw three touchdown passes, and the San Diego defense converted two interceptions into touchdowns, including safety Stanley Richard's 99-yard return for a score on the final play of the first half.
A 1-yard scoring run by Natrone Means, which capped a grueling 19-play, 89-yard drive that consumed more than 10 minutes of the final period, was the clinching score with 4:01 left.
Elway, who also had three TD passes, promptly drove Denver into scoring position, helped by offside and personal-foul penalties against San Diego. But on second-and-goal from the 3, Seau - who was guilty of the personal foul when he hit Elway high on a pass play - iced the win.
"It was a tough play to swallow," Seau said of the penalty, "especially when you know the pass was incomplete. I felt I had let my team down."
Chargers coach Bobby Ross said his team, which overcame early 17- and 18-point deficits, "showed a lot of character to make a comeback like that. We struggled early and couldn't move the ball, but I knew we could still win when we were down 17-0.
"I always get worried when I see No. 7 (Elway). He's the best in the game in the final two minutes."
Elway, whose 36 completions set a club record, agreed that his critical fumble came when on a bizarre play, but added, "The interception at the end of the first half wasn't bizarre. It was just plain stupid on my part."
Broncos coach Wade Phillips called Richard's interception "a 14-point swing. I've never seen a team get a 100-yard interception on the last play of the half. Obviously, we made too many mistakes. When you have a 100-yard interception return and you lose the ball on the 4-yard line with a fumble, you pay the price."
Richard's 99-yard return capped a 21-point San Diego flurry that lifted the Chargers to a 27-24 lead at halftime.
The Broncos appeared on the verge of a rout after Elway's second touchdown pass had given them a 24-6 lead.
Denver capitalized on a shanked punt and a fumbled kickoff return en route to an early 17-0 lead.
San Diego responded with an 82-yard drive, capped by Humphries' 22-yard TD pass to former Weber State tight end Albert Pupunu late in the opening period.
But Elway's 8-yard scoring toss to Glyn Milburn gave Denver a 24-6 lead.
Denver was driving for an apparent score in the closing seconds of the half, reaching the Chargers' 5 when Elway's pass was picked off by Richard near the goal line. Escorted by a phalanx of blockers, he scored easily as time expired in the half. Ronnie Harmon's run on the 2-point conversion gave San Diego a 27-24 lead.