Record Is Still Perfect -- Effort Far From It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Craig Whelihan's winning streak has ended at two--hope the Denver Broncos are proud of themselves.

If this is a team aspiring to make the argument it is the greatest in NFL history, after Sunday night's bungling, stumbling performance against Craig Who and his band of World League companions, the Broncos should forget it.

Denver remains undefeated after 12 games after disposing of the Chargers, 31-16, before a record crowd of 66,532 in Qualcomm Stadium, but this is not perfection.

Quarterback John Elway opened the game for the Broncos fumbling the snap from center. Come on, act as if you've played the game before.

The Chargers recovered the ball, and Whelihan promptly threw the ball to John Burke. Team officials said Burke has a family, suggesting someone out there knew who he was.

Stop when you recognize one of the names of those playing for the Chargers: Jimmy Spencer, Kenny Bynum, Kendyl Jacox, Charlie Jones. No, you were thinking of the former NBC broadcaster--no relation. Frank Hartley, Jon Haskins.

And the Broncos acted as if they were playing the 1985 Chicago Bears. By the time the first half ended, Elway had three touchdown passes but also had three interceptions against a secondary missing three starters and one that would have had a hard time shutting down the San Diego State Aztecs.

If Bynum--he's a running back who played for South Carolina State and once rushed for 189 yards against Hampton--hadn't fumbled at the Denver five-yard line, the Chargers might have moved ahead of the Broncos 17-14 in the second quarter.

If Whelihan-- who played collegiately at Pacific and once threw for two touchdowns against Northern Illinois--had run the ball instead of throwing it to Denver linebacker John Mobley at the San Diego 19 with 1:05 left in the first half, setting up a quick Bronco score, the Chargers might have trailed only 14-10 at intermission.

"Did you see every game the [undefeated 1972] Dolphins played?" Denver owner Pat Bowlen said. "If at the end of the year we're 19-0, there's no reason you wouldn't consider this team one of the better teams in history, if not the greatest. You can't take a game like we played tonight and hold that up as evidence that they're not.

"All great teams have bad games, but they find a way to win."

Or, they play the Chargers (5-7).

"Against a better team it might have been a different story," admitted Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski.

But fortunately it was the Chargers, who offer Bryan Stiff, ah Still--common mistake--Charlie Jones and Mikhael Ricks as their triple threat at wide receiver. No giggling, please.

Still caught a 47-yard touchdown pass against what eventually might be called the best team in NFL history. Running back Terrell Fletcher, ordinarily used only on third downs, subbed for injured Natrone Means and sidestepped the Bronco defense for a 13-yard touchdown.

What happens when they play the Minnesota Vikings?

The Broncos needed an ex-Charger to save the day, defensive back Darrien Gordon, who had two of Denver's five interceptions and a fumble recovery.

"We knew we were going to be in for a dogfight," Denver Coach Mike Shanahan said.

Who's he kidding?

"Whelihan's an excellent quarterback . . . don't count him out of it," Shanahan said.

Now you know he was joking.

The only reason Whelihan--who was 0-7 as a Charger starter last season--is playing is because Ryan Leaf can't play. The Chargers gave Leaf a $11.25 million signing bonus to play against Denver and everyone else, but he was a bust. The Charger scoreboard announced that one lucky fan had won a Ryan Leaf jersey, and some of the hometown fans booed.

After throwing any chance of upsetting the Broncos away with his third interception, and then his fourth, there was no cry from the fans to replace Whelihan with Leaf. Amazing.

"If there was ever a game where Denver might have lost. . . . " said Charger General Manager Bobby Beathard, who was personnel director of the 1972 17-0 Dolphins. "We had our chances in the first half, but the great teams find a way to win."

The Chargers outgained the Broncos (367-322), fared better on third down and on defense, limiting Denver running back Terrell Davis to 74 yards in 24 carries..

"We just kind of beat ourselves," San Diego Coach June Jones said.

The Chargers turned the ball over six times to maybe the best team in football history, and lost by 15 points--or two Whelihan touchdown tosses to Ricks, an extra point and a two-point Bynum run.

"I think they are beatable," Whelihan said. "You saw yourself that Elway threw three picks. We just didn't take advantage."

Elway--who lined up behind guard Tom Glassic thinking he was the center on his initial visit to this stadium 16 years ago--had three passes intercepted in the first half for the first time since 1992. But Elway, who ran off this field last January with the Lombardi Trophy in his hands after winning the Super Bowl, bounced back to finish with four touchdown passes.

"For me to throw three interceptions, fumble and still be up 21-10 at the half, well, that's something," said Elway, who moved past Johnny Unitas and Warren Moon into third place on the NFL all-time list for touchdown passes (294). "Things are not always going to go smooth for us, and we know that. So we're ready for a battle every time we go out there, and if we make a mistake, we're able to move on."

* RETURN TO SENDER: Baltimore's current team beat its predecessor, rallying for a 38-31 win over Indianapolis. Page 4

* SPECIAL DELIVERY: Drew Bledsoe throws winning touchdown pass with no time left in win over Buffalo. Page 6

* Kansas City 34, Arizona 24

* Atlanta 21, St. Louis 10

* New York Jets 48, Carolina 21

* Jacksonville 34, Cincinnati 17

* Tampa Bay 31, Chicago 17

* Seattle 20, Tennessee 18

* Miami 30, New Orleans 10

* Green Bay 24, Philadelphia 16

* Washington 29, Oakland 19

* Denver 31, San Diego 16

* SPOTLIGHTPage 4

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