With quarterback Brian Griese seemingly in sharp comeback form, the Denver Broncos will face Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady at New England Sunday in the AFC Game of the Week.

But regardless of how well they play, the Broncos won't be able to dislodge the San Diego Chargers from first place this week in the AFC West, the NFL's most competitive division.

For the first time in his long career, rookie San Diego Coach Marty Schottenheimer, who draws a bye Sunday, has a complete team that can pass, run and play defense well enough — without its best player, linebacker Junior Seau — to upset the Oakland Raiders.

The pass plays that San Diego used in Week 7 to win, 27-21, were as well thought out as they were brightly polished.

One such, called at the Oakland three-yard line, was a slow-developing play that required San Diego's linemen to hold their blocks while running back LaDainian Tomlinson faked a block until he could sneak into the end zone for quarterback Drew Brees' touchdown pass. For a team that might be en route to a new home in entertainment-capital Los Angeles, that was sufficiently sophisticated.

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Schottenheimer Sees the Light

FEW FOOTBALL FANS expect the 6-1 Chargers to hold first place forever against the 4-2 Raiders or the 5-2 Broncos, who, still favored in the AFC West, defeated the 3-4 Kansas City Chiefs Sunday on Griese's passes to tight end Shannon Sharpe, 37-34.

As Schottenheimer knows, he's in a respectable division. In his Kansas City days, he coached the Chiefs into the playoffs seven times. At 59, he's been in the playoffs 11 winters in all, more than any other active coach. The difference at San Diego is that with Brees pitching, he has a pass offense now. His other teams were all locked out of every Super Bowl and into every conservative's dream world. As those people invariably say — and Schottenheimer was once one of them — their life's goal is to run the ball and stop the run.

His change of philosophy came too late in Kansas City to drive the Chiefs into the NFL championship game, which Schottenheimer has never seen. His old associates said it was in Schottenheimer's 10th and final year in Missouri that he finally identified passing as — in Super Bowl terms — the weapon of decision. You can run your way into the playoffs, they said he said then, but not into the Super Bowl. Having proved this in his first 16 NFL seasons, he's throwing a lot now with Brees. And still running, of course. With Tomlinson now. Not long ago, Tomlinson had everything but the will to mix it up with the big guys in the closeness of contact. Or so it looked. But he's changed too, along with his coach. It's a new day in San Diego.

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Fines Hurt Players, Suspensions Hurt Team

ONE REASON DENVER struggled in Kansas City is that it was minus its strong safety, the player who on any NFL team is most instrumental in defensing pass plays and running plays both. A high Denver draft choice three years ago, Kenoy Kennedy was benched that day by the NFL, which ruled that while serving the Broncos as their strong safety, he has been making too many head-to-head hits. Those are not only illegal in pro football but unquestionably unsporting.

Kennedy was also fined $25,000 — not enough — and suspended for one game, too much.

Despite the predictable reaction in Denver, strong NFL action was necessary. The first game-time responsibility of the league, as Commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledges, is to keep its artists alive and playing football. And that can be properly done only with heavy fines that discourage scofflaws.

The problem with a suspension is that it penalizes the team as well as the player. A number of innocent people go down with the one convict. Nor, to maintain order, are suspensions required. Fines accomplish the same thing — if they're large enough.

The only reason I can think of that Kennedy keeps hitting people illegally — when he knows it will cost him a bunch of money — is that it doesn't cost him enough. He should have been fined $50,000, or more, whatever it takes. He was the one at fault, not his team, and not the football fans of Denver.

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Nebraska Hangs Onto Quarterback