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In Rematch Between Chargers, Broncos, Team Records Are the Biggest Surprises

Times Staff Writer

Two of the best receivers in Charger history--Kellen Winslow and Wes Chandler--retired on Friday.

Winslow had to quit because of an injured knee. Chandler, who had been traded to the 49ers in the off-season, said he had lost his zeal for the game.

“You could have gotten some long odds in Vegas on those two guys ending their careers the same day,” said Steve Ortmayer, pondering the coincidence of the two events.

Ortmayer is the Chargers’ director of football operations, not a bookmaker. But he knows as well as anybody how long the odds would have been three weeks ago that the Denver Broncos would arrive in town for today’s game with a worse record than his Chargers.

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Three weeks ago, Denver raised its mark to 1-1 by swatting the Chargers like a fly. The score was 34-3 and the Chargers dropped to 0-2. Bronco quarterback John Elway threw for 259 yards and 2 touchdowns. Bronco running back Tony Dorsett rushed for 113 yards on 23 carries.

In that same game, Charger starter Babe Laufenberg completed 2 of 8 passes. Charger running back Gary Anderson gained 16 yards on 9 carries and got benched in the second half.

The combined wisdom of Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder, Danny Sheridan, Pete Axthelm and an astrologer to be named later couldn’t have guessed the Chargers would rebound by upsetting Seattle and Kansas City while the Broncos would lose to Kansas City and the Raiders--blowing a 24-0 halftime lead in the latter game.

“Everybody was devastated,” Denver Coach Dan Reeves said of the Broncos’ Monday night disappearing act against the Raiders at Mile High Stadium.

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And it didn’t get any better the next morning when the defending AFC champions looked at the standings in the papers. There at the bottom were the Broncos and the Chiefs. There, tied at the top, were the Raiders, the Seahawks and the Chargers.

Talk about long odds. Actually, the odds have diminished. Denver was a 13-point favorite against the Chargers at Mile High Stadium. Today, the Broncos are favored by five.

“Denver will probably come to town with a little more respect,” Charger offensive coordinator Jerry Rhome said. “But they may not. We didn’t play very well against them. They probably don’t think very much of us.”

Rhome made those remarks before the Raiders’ comeback in Denver. Since then, the Broncos apparently think even less of themselves. The three losses in four games is their worst start in eight years under Reeves, not counting the 1982 strike season. Elway, who ranks 11th in AFC passing, talked openly this week about Denver’s crisis in confidence. So did his coach.

“If I know our team the way I think I know it,” Reeves said, “we’ll bounce back. It may not be this week. But we’re not going to quit. You don’t usually turn things around overnight.”

Reeves became a grandfather in the off-season. But that has nothing to do with why he forgot to call a timeout late in the first half against the Raiders, in a situation where the Broncos could have extended their halftime lead. Reeves, after all, is just 44.

“I’m very surprised that Denver is 1-3, but I’m not surprised that we’re 2-2,” Charger Coach Al Saunders said bravely.

Perhaps the biggest difference between these two teams three weeks ago and now is the remarkably swift ascendancy of the Charger ground game. After an inner-sanctum chat with Saunders, Anderson began running more instinctively and ripped off games of 120 and 131 yards rushing against Seattle and Kansas City. Only the Colts’ Eric Dickerson has rushed for more yards than Anderson in the AFC.

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Moreover, the Chargers have outrushed all four of their opponents and have gained more yards on the ground each week than they did the previous game. They can’t continue that indefinitely. But the Denver defense ranks 24th in the league at defensing the run.

Worse for the Broncos, strong safety Dennis Smith’s hamstring has forced them to place him on injured reserve. That loss should be offset by the return of linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, who missed the Raider game with a bad thumb. The Chargers hope to counter Mecklenburg’s menacing presence with the return of their best linebacker, Billy Ray Smith. A calf injury has prevented Smith from playing since the season-opening loss to the Raiders in Los Angeles.

“The key thing is to determine how much Billy Ray can play,” Saunders said. “To expect him to play the entire game is probably a little ambitious.”

It’s also probably a little ambitious to expect the Chargers to beat Denver. The Broncos have outscored them, 58-3, in their past two meetings.

But, Reeves says, “the Chargers are much more confident now.”

And, Saunders adds, “that’s why they play these games.”

Charger Notes

Charger punter Ralf Mojsiejenko leads the NFL with a 47.5 average. Denver’s Mike Horan is second at 46.9 thanks to punts of 70 and 67 yards against the Raiders last week. Those were the two longest punts of his five-year NFL career. . . . Denver has allowed six sacks, fewest in the AFC.. . . Charger center Don Macek on the adjustments from blocking for a pass-oriented team to blocking for a team that runs the ball: “The biggest difference is being more aggressive off the ball and having your head and shoulders lower and changing your stance.” . . . Rookie wide receiver Quinn Early wasn’t about to miss last week’s opportunity for a souvenir of his first NFL touchdown. After catching a 38-yard scoring pass from Babe Laufenberg, Early gave the ball to the official. Then he realized he wanted the ball back for posterity. “Let me see that for a minute,” he told the official. “What for?” the official asked suspiciously. “By then I was close enough, and I just knocked it out of his hands and ran for the sideline,” Early said. The official simply asked for another ball, allowing Early to keep his.

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