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Mile High a Low Point for Chargers : Football: Team traditionally does poorly in Denver.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Chargers, 0-3 and losers of eight of their last nine games, are trying to catch their breath, so where does the National Football League schedule-maker send them--the Mile High City.

Gasp.

Nonsense, said Coach Dan Henning: “This team hasn’t been there yet. Different people . . . This is a different Charger team; you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“What case do you want to make? Make your story and verify it yourself.”

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Item 1: In their past four thin-air appearances here against the Broncos (2-1), the Chargers have scored a total of 23 points.

Item 2: The last time they scored two touchdowns in Mile High Stadium in a game was in 1985 for Don Coryell with Dan Fouts at quarterback.

Item 3: The Broncos’ defense is limiting the opposition to an average of 12 points a game at home this year.

Item 4: The last time the Chargers won here was in 1986; it’s the only time in John Elway’s nine-year reign as a one-man team that the Chargers have bested him in Denver.

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Item 5: Dan Reeves’ Broncos have the NFL’s best record at home since 1981 with an overall 60-19 mark.

Case closed. It must be the altitude.

“This team has a bunch of guys who have never been to Denver,” Henning said. “Stan Richard has never been to Denver. Eric Moten hasn’t been to Denver. John Friesz has been there standing on the sideline, and Shawn Jefferson has never been to Denver.

“Nate Lewis has been there once, but didn’t play any wide receiver. Harry Swayne’s never been to Denver. I don’t know. (The altitude) might affect them and might not. In the two years that I’ve been up there, I thought we should have won both games. We didn’t.

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“It must have an effect on them, too. They haven’t scored very many points against us up there, have they?”

In the past 10 years, the Broncos have averaged 20 points a game in Mile High Stadium against the Chargers. And they have won eight of those 10 games.

“Maybe the water’s bad up there,” Henning said. “Maybe we ought to go three days ahead of time to get used to it (altitude). Maybe we ought to go up there all week.”

Maybe the Chargers should have traded for John Elway in 1983 when they had the chance.

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“He carried that team to three Super Bowls,” said Jim Mora, the Chargers’ secondary coach. “Without John Elway, they wouldn’t have come close to the Super Bowl. He made that team.

“He’s just a great player. The one thing I’ve tried to stress over and over to our players this week is that you have to stay in coverage. You’ve got to take care of your responsibilities because this is not a normal human being you’re playing against.

“He has the ability to scramble to his left, stop and throw it all the way back across the field 60 to 70 yards. You watch the 61-yard touchdown pass he threw to Ricky Nattiel last week, and the free safety gives up because he doesn’t think the play can be made.”

The Chargers had tremendous success against Elway in his developing years, and overall have piled up 35 sacks and 18 interceptions against him, while allowing 11 touchdown passes.

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Elway has not thrown an interception this season, but over the years cornerback Gill Byrd has intercepted five of his passes.

“He’s the man,” Byrd said. “I’ll bet those 11 touchdowns have come against us when the game has been on the line. You can’t look at statistics all the time. He might throw an interception in the first half, but when it’s time to win a ballgame, Elway rises to the occasion.”

A rejuvenated Elway is calling his own plays this season, and so far he has completed 58% of his passes, including four for touchdowns. He has also run for a pair of scores, and the Chargers understand whom they have to stop.

“He has that freedom and added incentive, ‘that as long as I go out make something happen and call my own plays they’ll let me continue,’ ” linebacker Leslie O’Neal said. “More than anyone you have to applaud Dan Reeves for having enough faith in his athletes to do that. I mean could you see us here in San Diego doing that? You’d have to laugh at the thought.”

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The fans-in-the-stands could call the plays for the Chargers. Rod Bernstine is going run with the ball, and so is Marion Butts. When the Broncos bring their safeties forward to shut down the run, quarterback John Friesz will attempt to throw the ball deep to Shawn Jefferson or Nate Lewis.

The Broncos’ defense, however, has enjoyed tremendous success against the run. They are allowing 78.7 yards a game on the ground. However, their linebacking corps has been wiped out by injury, and today they will start two--perhaps three--rookies.

On offense the Broncos have attempted 90 passes and have run the ball 90 times. Gaston Green, the Ram castoff, has replaced holdout Bobby Humphrey and has carried the ball 60 times for 233 yards.

The Broncos will play without wide receiver Vance Johnson, however, who remains on injured reserve. In Johnson’s absence, Elway has focused on Michael Young.

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“They don’t have those guys (Johnson and Humphrey) and they’re still getting it done,” linebacker Gary Plummer said. “So what does that tell you? That tells me the guy back there pulling the trigger is the man that makes them go.”

The defense is supposed to make it all work for the Chargers, but it ranks 28th in a 28-team league. The Chargers also have the quarterback with the lowest completion percentage in the AFC in Friesz. But Reeves is not fooled.

“It’s the best football team I’ve seen,” Reeves said.

Further evidence that altitude takes its toll on everyone.

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